From QR codes to limited dishes: How the pandemic has transformed restaurant menu design.

The global pandemic has undeniably changed how the restaurant industry operates. The mass shutdown of restaurants forced restaurateurs to shift their focus from building connections to new safety needs. Takeout and delivery, once an afterthought to some, became vital to survival. In addition to all the other restrictions — sparse seating arrangements, repeated sanitizing requirements — restaurant owners also had to overhaul their approach to menu design.

Reusable menu cards have been a norm in the industry for decades. But tools like disposable menus, QR codes and signage menus are experiencing a growing popularity, becoming another example of how the pandemic has affected all kinds of businesses.

The reemergence of the QR code

QR codes, or Quick Response Codes, were originally invented by a Japanese engineer in 1994 to keep track of car parts. By 2010, and with the boom in smartphones, QR codes began to gain some traction and slowly entered the mainstream. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that they became a common sight in food menu design across bars and restaurants.

What is a QR code menu?

A QR code menu is a digital version of your menu that you can print on posters, decals or disposable menus, that customers can access by scanning the code on their smartphone cameras. It provides a great alternative to physical menu design and creates a more COVID-era-friendly customer experience.

The square code is an image, just like a barcode you might see in a grocery store, that diners can scan on their smartphones. Once scanned, customers can access a website or app where the code translates into readable menu information. It’s a valuable option for restaurant owners who want a quick, low-cost and effective way to update their menus.

Benefits of QR code menus

There are tons of advantages to using a QR code menu in restaurants. Here’s a few:

  1. Contactless menus are safer for consumers. QR codes are a more hygienic and safer alternative to the conventional reusable menu. It reduces menu sharing between customers, and the number of things they touch when they are dining in.
  2. QR code menus are less wasteful and budget friendly. QR codes provide an economical substitute to printed menus. Whether you’re introducing a new item or updating your prices, with a QR code menu you can make these changes digitally without any additional expenses. This also allows for more frequent updates with minimal fuss. Plus, you can easily get creative with the menu design.
  3. QR codes are easy to make. Custom QR codes are easy to make and print, which means you can do it yourself. There’s plenty of free QR code generators out there, and with the right one you can create your QR code in less than 5 minutes.

Ways to display QR codes

Once you have your digital menu and a QR code ready, it’s important to make sure they are easy to see, scan and use. You can use one or a combination of these methods to make sure your QR code menu is easy to see and scan:

  • Place your code on the front page of your takeout or disposable menu
  • Stick the code on windows, using window decals or posters to catch the eye of passersby
  • Put the code on table tent menus to grab diners’ attention
  • Set up a sandwich board so customers scan your QR code on the go
  • Add the code to your business cards and loyalty cards


Display your QR codes in easy-to-spot places around the restaurant or print them on takeout menus. This will make it easy for customers to find and scan them.

The single-use menu boom

In light of the pandemic, single-use menus were encouraged to minimize contact between restaurant staff and customers. This menu format makes for a great replacement to the reusable menus, as it can be discarded after each use.

Disposable menus are printed on thin paper sheets and often placed at the restaurant entry, order counter or dining tables. They can be bought in bulk and discarded after use, making sure that there is no point of contact between different groups of customers. However, as the industry is moving toward packaging with less environmental impact, single-use menus may grow less popular an option.

Moving away from the traditional menu to signage

Amid the pandemic, some restaurants have decided to move away from reusable menus entirely and opt for large signage such as chalkboards, yard signs and digital boards.

These types of menus can be posted in high-traffic areas, such as storefronts, behind the counter or at the center of the dining area where they can be viewed without having to physically touch them.

Besides being sanitary and easy to update, the appeal lies in how attention-grabbing they can be. For example, digital menu boards can bring your menu items to life with enticing food photos, animations and stylish typography which can improve the ordering experience.

However, it’s important to note that these types of menus can be pricier than printed menus, but can make a great investment in the long haul.

Less is more

In the wake of the pandemic, some restaurateurs started favoring shorter menus because they streamline the ordering process by making it easier for customers to decide what they want to eat.

Smaller menus designs give owners the ability to curate items that use the same ingredients for multiple dishes, ultimately cutting down on costs and avoiding food waste. Reducing the number of dishes, and focusing on the most popular, also helps with prep time and the overall quality of the remaining dishes served.

As the pandemic continues to transform the restaurant industry, many operators are riding the wave by adopting newer technologies, revamping menu designs and rethinking the traditional dining experience. While the industry continues to see what the future holds, the right menu can make a big difference in the here and now.