QR Code Menus: Efficiency, but at what cost?

A now-familiar site at ramen restaurants.

One diner’s perspective on this COVID-accelerated trend.

Efficiency is a hallmark of the Japanese way. So it’s no surprise QR code menus have become popular at ramen and other Asian restaurants, accelerated by the low-touch requirements of the COVID era. This raises a question, however: for whom is it efficient?

What started as a fun alternative for me quickly became tiresome and a detriment to my dining experience. Apparently many others agree: a TimeOut-Twitter Poll of New York diners showed only 30 percent love QR code menus, while 70 percent say “bring back paper menus!”

I’m tech savvy, but my first experience with QR code ordering and payment, at the fabulous Menya Shono in San Rafael, California, was frustrating. It took me a while to get accustomed to the software and menu hierarchy. Once I did, I still hit the wrong back button which erased my selections. My two Ramen club buddies ordered separately, but that staggered the delivery of our meals. 

Ordering another item mid-meal requires an entirely new payment. We’d figured out the system’s limits by our third visit, ordered all on one phone, and the food arrived together. Still, the ability to pay with two or more credit cards isn’t available.

Luckily the ramen-focused menu at Menya Shono is limited and easy to navigate, far from the vast multi-dish selection at Shinya Shokudo in Seattle. Navigating this menu on a 6-inch screen is challenging. My wife actually gave up and asked me to do the ordering. Luckily our waitress confirmed our order in person before relaying it to the kitchen (food was good, BTW).

Like anything technology-related, the software and user interface (UI) are key. Get them wrong and the intended benefit quickly fades. This is where the QR code process often breaks down for me.

My most elegant QR code experience was at Ippudo in Berkeley, California, where you scan the online menu but order from your waitperson, paying them directly at the end of your meal. Unless the menu is huge, this seems to be the best approach. Doing all three required actions on the phone – read, select and pay – can turn the fun and anticipatory element of dining into a bit of a chore.

Hopefully paper menus won’t become a luxury, but If QR code menus are here to stay, my suggestions are: get the software right, limit the function to menu reading, but leave ordering and paying to your waitperson. 

Isn’t this a better approach? (from Nagi in Palo Alto, CA)

To answer my original question: QR code menus are efficient for restaurant owners, and in this now post-COVID timeframe I empathize with restaurants trying to get back to normal business. For many diners however, it’s not efficient and comes at a cost.

I don’t expect a fine-dining experience at a ramen restaurant, but I hope the human element of dining doesn’t get further diminished. Even at the simplest of places, I want the pleasure of being served. And don’t we already spend too much time on our phones anyway?

Mike’s Mighty Good “Craft Ramen” (Instant. Sorry!)

Mike's Mighty Good "Craft Ramen” package

Desperate times call for desperate eating measures (and please contribute to your local restaurant worker relief funds!).

Mensho, Iza and Hinodeya are only doing takeout. Nojo is closed. That’s a quick scan of a few ramen spots we like in San Francisco. While the inability to slurp ramen is the least of our concerns these days, I’m beginning to miss the experience. 

Takeout ramen is a tough sell for me, plus my wife and I are sheltering in place. So in an attempt to ease the longing, I’m trying a few of the new breed of instant ramen. Today it’s Mike’s Mighty Good, which tries to piggyback on the restaurant ramen craze by calling its product “craft ramen.”

Empty ramen shelves at Whole Foods. Got better .
Empty instant ramen shelves at Whole Foods. Got better the next week.

Finding some of Mike’s products wasn’t easy last week, at least at my local Whole Foods. Today, supplies were better. I tried the fried garlic chicken first, thinking some leftover dark meat chicken would suffice for the protein topping.

The product comes with two packets: broth powder and oil. Boil water, add noodles, mix in the packets – done. Since I hardly ever eat instant ramen, I have nothing to compare to Mike’s. I was hoping to find something notable about it, even with diminished expectations. Not really. 

What’s inside.

The broth was thin, spiked with some pepper. Noodles were OK, I suppose, and I was pleased they were organic. My chicken slices and some leftover cooked spinach kept this meal from being a bore. Next time I might try adding a 6-minute egg. As a newbie to instant ramen, I’m assuming those in the know add as many toppings and flavorings as possible.

No star rating, as instant ramen isn’t really what we do here. Next time I will try one of the instant ramens that come in those large plastic  bowls. Maybe I’ll find a reasonable substitute to ease my longing.

Mike's Ramen - finished product
Mike’s Mighty Good “Fried Garlic Chicken” Ramen – finished product in bowl.

Until things open up again, I urge you to find a local restaurant worker’s relief fund in your area, or a social fund specifically for your favorite ramen place. Here’s one for Oakland’s Ramen Shop.

Or maybe purchase a gift certificate you can use in better times. Restaurants are hurting right now and some will not survive the next few months. Please do what you can.