In 1994, the butterfly flaps its wings and a Japanese engineer designs a digitized solution for tracking auto parts. In 2022, you’re at a sit-down Mexican restaurant and fumbling with your smartphone, tapping the screen to focus, refocus, and then finally click through to a tiny menu that would have popped up faster if you just Googled it. What was then an innocuous invention by a man named Masahiro Hara—who was probably just trying to do his job!—is now omnipresent in the worst way. I’m talking, of course, about Satan’s grid. The disturbing square. The colorless, alienating block of the QR code.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the QR code from novelty to menace. Allegedly, there are a lot of applications for QR codes, and the way they’d pop up from time to time was kind of creative, kind of demented, but overall harmless. Enterprising brands would slap one on a billboard or the side of a bus, so people could scan to find a deal on the latest pants or a cut-rate subscription to a gourmet dog food delivery service. In Japan, Uruguay, and Wisconsin, certain cemeteries added them to tombstones for visitors looking for a quick hit of info about the deceased. Now, though, QR codes are everywhere, as ubiquitous in restaurants and coffee shops as they are annoying—and they are so annoying.
How do QR codes suck? Let’s count the ways:
They’re an artifact of our early pandemic grocery-bleaching era, a lingering guest at the hygiene theater party that does a whole lot of nothing when it actually comes to curbing COVID. Are the same eateries using QR codes for “safety” reasons giving their employees enough PTO to make sure they don’t come to work actively sick? Or time off to get tested? Or access to COVID tests?QR code “menus” make a certain level of tech a prerequisite for dining out. What, someone can’t get a breakfast sandwich or bibimbap if they don’t have a phone? I feel bad for hosts and servers who have to alert the people they’re seating about The Code. It’s inherently awkward to point out something that everyone can see but nobody wants to look at.Nobody’s mom or dad can scan them, which inevitably becomes a “Let me see your phone,” “No, let me see your phone!” fiasco. How many birthday lunches have QR codes ruined? Hundreds? Thousands?QR codes are too fancy for a casual food setting and too casual for a fine dining experience. The only place where it feels “right” to use a QR code is a Panera, where the atmosphere is so tranquil (and the menu is so clearly posted above the cash register) that nothing can bring you down when you’re in there. One mac and cheese bread bowl with an apple on the side and a cup for my Plum Ginger Hibiscus tea, please! Nine times out of ten, a QR code leads to a menu that already exists on the restaurant/cafe/bar/dispensary website. Sometimes it even links to the restaurant website, where you have to navigate to the correct menu on your own. It’s like putting an extra door between your living room and your bathroom—the path of most resistance to getting you where you need to go.
If I had my druthers, I would literally never see another QR code for the rest of my life. They lack character. Physical menus actually say something about the place you’re eating, whether they’re chalked onto a blackboard over the counter, snapped onto a letter board, handed out by the sheet to each new diner, laminated and tucked in a pocket by the counter, tri-folded to be used later for takeout purposes, or printed onto cardstock and tucked into a leather. Maybe the thing they say is “Whatever they use to clean these is really sticky,” or “Whoa! Somebody here loves the font Papyrus,” but aren’t those quirks part of what makes dining out worth it?
Because QR codes are usually free to generate and probably easier to deal with than physical menus—which do, I guess, require the use of literal tons of paper annually—I’m terrified that they’re here to stay. Our only hope, then, is a collective outcry from… people who leave restaurant reviews online, maybe? TikTok foodies? Gordon Ramsey? Or, best-case scenario, a powerful coalition of all the above, fighting for what’s right before it’s too late.
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.