It’s the end of paper menus, as Utah restaurants turn digital

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Garage Grill in Draper, like many eateries, now has QR codes on its tables for people to access online menus as people dine in on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. The restaurant has expanded the idea beyond just the menu. Now each piece of automobile memorabilia in the restaurant has its own QR code that gives customers details about its history and unique features.

From hardback novels, telephone books and daily newspapers, to road maps, utility bills and grocery store coupons — dozens of items that once were printed solely on paper are now available mostly in electronic form.

One exception — at least before the pandemic — was the menu at a sit-down restaurant.

Handed out by the server and pored over by guests, the printed “bill of fare” was so ingrained in the dining experience that few full-service eateries wanted to ditch them for digital.

That changed, of course, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged restaurants and bars from using these communal pieces of paper — and other shared or reusable items — to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Instead,” the agency advised, “use disposable or digital menus, and single serving condiments.”

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Eateries, whether they were large national chains or small Utah cafes, heeded the advice, switching to online menus that customers could access through special QR — quick response — codes.

Younger diners hardly blinked at the change, easily scanning these black and white matrixes that now grace restaurant tables. But customers with less experience also have learned — for safety’s sake — how to use the ubiquitous cellphone camera app.

“Saying bye-bye to printed menus” is one of the top dining trends for 2021, according to Baum+Whiteman, an international food and restaurant consulting firm.

“Learn to tolerate those dreaded QR codes on restaurant tables,” the company’s “Hottest Food and Beverage Trends” report states. “Restaurants save printing costs and get better accuracy of orders hitting the kitchen since the customer does the work ... bypassing the waiter.”

The QR codes, adds the report, also “are good for touchless ordering and speedily settling your bill.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Garage Grill in Draper, like many eateries, now has QR codes on its tables for people to access online menus as people dine in on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

Toscano and Garage Grill, both in Draper, are among dozens of sit-down restaurants that have eliminated paper menus. “We got some push back the first few weeks,” said co-owner Jeremy Ford. “But now people are used to it.”

For the small number of patrons who don’t carry a cellphone, Ford said Garage Grill provides an iPad to view the online menu.

Protecting patrons and staff may have been the initial reason to move toward digital menus, but there have been ancillary benefits for restaurants — namely the added flexibility that online menus offer.

“It’s easy to add a daily special or delete an item. If the cost of tomatoes goes up, I can adjust our price,” Ford said. “There’s a lot of value to the restaurant.”

Ford has expanded the QR technology beyond the menu at Garage Grill, where each piece of automobile memorabilia also has its own QR code that gives details about its history and unique features.

Online menus may save paper and printing costs, but it’s difficult to realize the savings with so many new COVID-19 expenses — like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer — and restaurant capacity cut by as much as 50% to keep tables at least 6 feet apart.

Still, the advantages point to the end of paper menus, Ford said. “I believe that most restaurants will continue to use online menus even after the pandemic.”

Paperless technology was already the norm inside quick-serve restaurants where customers use menu boards and kiosk ordering systems.

Table-service restaurants “were already going digital,” said Brooks Kirchheimer, co-owner of Hearth and Hill in Park City, “but COVID expedited that.”

That was especially true early in the pandemic, he said, when the only way restaurants could be open was through online ordering and curbside pickup.

When Hearth and Hill reopened for sit-down service in May, it initially used printed menus that servers tossed after each use, Kirchheimer said. “It sickened me to see how much we were throwing away.” So it didn’t take long before the restaurant moved to the online menu.

The QR code system has been a learning curve for diners, but also brought about internal changes.

“We change menus more frequently than they ever have been before,” Kirchheimer said, “and it has really forced us to fine-tune our website — to make the menus as easy as possible for guests to read.”

Beverages, for instance, that once were listed at the bottom of the menu — and were overlooked by customers — have been moved higher on the page.

Hearth and Hill has even had fun with the new menu system, hiring an artist in Mexico to etch the QR code into elegant-looking pieces of wood.

Kirchheimer said his restaurant — and he suspects others — will still keep a few paper menus for those who want one. But online menus are “the new standard for all of us.”

(Photo courtesy of Hearth & Hill) Hearth and Hill in Park City has had fun with its new online menu system, hiring an artist in Mexico to etch the QR code into elegant-looking pieces of wood that sits on each table.

Despite the trend toward digital, there are still many restaurants — particularly those in the fine dining category — that will remain tied to print menus.

At Kimi’s Chop & Oyster House in Salt Lake City, for example, the printed menus are laminated and sanitized between uses, said owner Kimi Eklund, who noted that she doesn’t really like the plastic covering. “But for a nicer restaurant I just don’t think the QR codes work.”

But at Trolley Wing Co., the new online menu system is “easier, efficient and cost effective” for co-owner Jeff Krie to manage. “The downside,” he said, “is that people tend to miss things when it’s on a phone.”

Krie admits to being a bit “old school” and mourning the loss of the printed menus. He put a lot of thought into the logo and design. The history of the restaurant that was on the printed menu was removed from the online version, as was a “how to order” guide that helped customers get the right sauce and heat level.

“I was really proud of our menu,” he said. “I liked putting it together and fine-tuning it. We printed it on nice paper and put it in a laminated sleeve. It was really cool.”

But times change and to survive restaurants must keep up, he said. “I don’t think we are going to go back.”

He did mention one final upside to the online menu.

“Customers can bookmark and save the Trolley Wing’s web address,” he said. “They have the menu in their pocket at all times.”