QR Code at Bar Charley Credit: Laura Hayes

As diners return to restaurants in D.C., many are finding a new style of service that was rare prior to the pandemic. Instead of ordering off a paper menu while a server records their selections, they instead locate a QR code and scan it using the camera on their mobile device. From there they can peruse the menu, place orders, and pay.

The restaurant industry has dabbled in using the technology in the past to help guests order, but it became widespread last summer when on-site dining resumed in the District. For customers and staff, it carried the promise of a near contactless dining experience that, in theory, reduced the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. And for owners caught in an ongoing staffing crisis, the technology helps fewer employees keep up with more tables.

QR codes may be safe and convenient, but there are shortcomings too. They can’t accommodate unbanked or underbanked customers looking to pay with cash and lessening interaction with restaurant employees like servers and bartenders leaves diners without guides for navigating nuanced menus. 

With strict reopening restrictions still in place and only about a fifth of D.C. residents fully vaccinated, the once-booming local restaurant scene is still on the mend from its worst year on record. But as a light flickers at the end of the metaphorical tunnel, restaurant owners are mulling over what pandemic-inspired changes they’ll hold onto in the new normal and what impact their permanent usage will have on the evolving nature of hospitality. 

When it comes to QR codes, the impact on the dining experience varies based on how heavily they’re utilized. At Carving Room NoMa, all diners use the same code to pull up the menu and pay. Servers still answer questions and take orders. 

At other places, like Maketto on H Street NE and Red Bear Brewing Co. in NoMa, the implementation of QR codes permeates the dining experience from start to finish. Each table has its own dedicated code at both establishments. This allows customers to order on their phones and keep their tabs open until they’re ready to leave. Diners enter their credit card details before selecting their first items as a safeguard against forgetting to close out at the end of a meal. Departing without having to flag down an employee to run a credit card or make change can feel freeing.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s director of operations, Erik Bergman, says several of the company’s restaurants use QR code technology, including fine dining destination Iron Gate. “In the old system we would very often see a guest experience fall apart at checkout,” he explains. Instead of dropping a check and then running a guest’s card, servers offer up a QR code so diners can pay with their phone at their desired pace.

Bergman says NRG committed to using QR codes at their newest endeavor, The Roost, during the early planning stages in 2017. The multi-restaurant destination that opened this fall on Capitol Hill calls its front-of-house workers “ambassadors” because using QR code technology blurs the traditional job descriptions of hosts, servers, and food runners. 

Keem Hughley, the head of sales for Erik Bruner-Yang’s hospitality group that counts ABC Pony and Maketto as two of its spots, has also noticed that restaurants are adopting new terms for roles within a restaurant. “You’re more of a customer service agent than a traditional server,” he says. These individuals can cover a lot of ground with the help of technology. “If we have four servers on the floor along with the QR codes, it does the work of 12.” 

He also likes how QR code-ordering can streamline operations by giving diners a direct line to the bar or kitchen. “You’re capturing the customer when they want to be fed,” he explains. “The beauty of it is that as soon as a customer at the table is like, ‘Oh I want a Negroni,’ they can immediately order [it].” Because diners can order at the touch of a button, Hughley hypothesizes that check averages and tips trend higher. (Maketto adds a 20 percent service charge to checks and an optional additional tip, the default for which is 10 percent.)

But Maketto’s menu descriptions are concise, even if there are photos. One vegetarian dish is described as “fried local tofu, spicy basil sauce, and white rice.” Curious customers might wonder about the origins of the tofu or whether they can handle Maketto’s definition of “spicy.” A server typically fields such inquiries, but Hughley argues those days are done—at least in more casual restaurants. “A traditional server can’t work through your whole menu in the spiel,” he says. “Our customers are not looking for that.” 

From a hospitality perspective, Red Bear co-founder Cameron Raspet says QR codes give servers more breath to talk about the offerings, “simply because they’re not sucked into the nuts and bolts of ordering.” Raspet acknowledges, however, that the system requires employees to be more proactive about interacting with customers. Having the opportunity to ask questions seems especially appealing at small brewpubs where the beers made on site are unique. “They have to go out and touch tables a little more to say, ‘Hey you got everything you need? You got any questions?’”

It’s hard to say how much employees engage with patrons in practice, but Raspet argues that using QR codes means servers can handle more tables at a time. This both slashes the restaurant’s payroll expenses and theoretically increases tip averages for staff watching over more diners.

To satiate customers in search of more information, Red Bear general manager Tyson McDonald says they got wordier on the virtual menu the QR code pulls up. “We do get some guests who want to keep their distance and that’s why we provide as much detail as we can in the online menu,” he says. 

Wine bars, like brewpubs, are another setting where customers commonly look to engage with experts to help them find what they like or broaden their horizons. Interacting with a sommelier or at least a wine geek is part of the pull. One of D.C.’s buzziest new bars, St. Vincent Wine, opened during the pandemic and had to figure out how to show customers a good time while minimizing interaction and following rules set by the city. The tasting notes customers can read when they peruse the wine list using a QR code help.

One reads: “Spice, flowers, tea, hint of game, and raspberry on the nose. Deep dark fruit and earthy nuances framed by bright acidity. Currants, pomegranate on the palate. Medium bodied, chewy tannins, long finish. A most Burgundian-style Bandol wine, if you can wrap your mind around such a thing.”

If that’s not enough, co-owner Peyton Sherwood says they have a strategy. His business partner, Fred Uku, monitors what bottles are selling. (St. Vincent Wine only sells wine by the bottle, making each purchase somewhat of an investment.) “When he recognizes certain bottles going out that he knows are special, he’ll take it out himself and talk to a table,” Sherwood explains. Customers are also welcome to go inside the wine shop and talk with staff. But these are exceptions, not how the self-service system is designed to function.

Sherwood says he monitors how much his servers make in tips because he likes “to make sure that everyone makes a hearty paycheck,” especially under the style of service that comes with using QR codes. 

“I was watching the tip percentages go down—this was about two months ago maybe,” Sherwood says. The average tip percentage fell from 17.6 percent to 13 percent over about a two week span. “I realized a lot of people were hitting the ‘no tip’ option, and I was like huh? I guess it’s because no one was asking [customers] for their order, but they don’t realize all the extra work that goes into it. It’s going to get the bottles of wine, it’s going to clean up everything. It’s a lot of work that these folks do.”

Tip percentages began to climb again after a quick fix. St. Vincent Wine adjusted the wording at check out by changing the “no tip” option to an “I don’t tip” option. Fewer people left zero tip, which is what was previously sinking the average. 

Still, not all diners and restaurant owners have been convinced by the virtues of QR code ordering. Only around the corner from Red Bear, CR NoMa switched back to a system where the QR code fetches the menu for viewing only. The neighborhood spot had been using a QR code system where diners could directly to their tables, but owners Oded Weizmann and Rachel Steiman decided to revert to the QR codes that only access the menu for viewing after they noticed people were ordering less. They think diners were frustrated by having to open a new tab every time they wanted to tack on another dish or drink. 

They also feared customer service suffered and their Israeli-inspired dishes needed more explanation than a few words on a menu could provide. “There are some menu items that customers were not familiar with,” Steiman says. “They had questions and wanted to interact with the server and get a better understanding of what they were considering ordering.” 

Their schnitzel sandwich, for example, is uncharacteristically spiced with zhoug. Weizmann describes the condiment as a “Middle Eastern salsa verde.” “They need to know what’s in it, what kind of flavor profile they’re getting,” he says. “The fact that it’s a little spicy, where it comes from, those things that make them say, ‘Oh, that sounds good,’ or, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’” 

The owners say they kept the read-only QR menus at the NoMa location to save time and paper. “You’re not having to throw away all the menus every time you make a new dish,” Steiman says. 

The longer restaurants operate using new technology like QR codes though, the more entrenched the systems become. Already, it’s changed how some restaurants hire by allowing fewer staff to cover more ground. Diners too are becoming more accustomed to the new systems too. 

But even if restaurants continue using the technology, what happens at bars once bar service can resume? (Currently the District prohibits customers from sitting at staffed bars. Bartenders, therefore, have been functioning more like servers.) McDonald, the manager from Red Bear, anticipates several challenges when it comes to integrating QR code-ordering at the bar, like the risk of accidentally serving underage drinkers. 

“Even if you could scan your ID in the app, you could scan anyone’s,” he says. Bartenders also look out for customers by making sure they aren’t overserved. “There’s certain in-person sides to service that will never go away and that’s one of them.”

And then there’s the danger of being dependent on technology and the internet. In the past, something like a broken card reader or a broken printer can derail the whole night for staff and diners. Staff end up having to input credit card numbers manually or hand deliver orders to the kitchen. But the downsides are even greater here, where the technology takes diners from start to finish.

It’s already happened a few times at The Roost and Bergman admits it left them in a tough spot. “We definitely feel more beholden to the technology because we’re frankly staffed less as a result,” he says. Employees might not have experience as traditional servers either, throwing them into the deep end when technology fails. “I think everyone who’s been working those times has a few scars from it.”

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