Sunday, another insomnia day with only one hour of sleep, my friend and I went out to eat at Chilis. This is our usual hangout routine. We go to a restaurant, Chili’s, Old Chicago, Red Robin, etc. and sit and talk. In the past I used to drink heavily so that day was my first real sober challenge. Drinking while super sleep deprived is always great — it puts you in a dreamlike state where everything feels only 10% real –but I was a good boy and drank water. (My friend pounded about four Dr. Peppers so I was even healthier than him.) Honestly I feel kinda shitty about not drinking and won’t pretend that lunch was so much more fulfilling and better because I was sober. Sure I remember more of the conversation and was more present than usual, but it still kinda sucked.
This was our first trip out in over a year. COVID obviously fucked everything up and I was surprised to see the restaurant experience mostly unchanged. There were transparent plastic barriers separating the booths from each other, and people wore masks when they weren’t eating, but nothing much was different.
It came time to order and I noticed that we didn’t have a menu. When they seated us, they gave us a singular laminated piece of paper which I assumed was the menu, but I was wrong. This only showed their drink specials and appetizers. Where the fuck was the menu? My friend pointed out a QR code on the drink menu which said something like, “Scan the QR code to view the menu!” What the hell? His phone, an older Android model, didn’t have a built-in QR reader and he didn’t want to fuck around with finding an app for it. My phone, a Samsung Galaxy S10 does have a QR reader although it took some time before I remembered how to find it. I never use it. When I do use it I do so reluctantly. Fucking QR codes…
It directed me to a webpage with the menu. I copied this link and sent it to my friend. Instead of a .pdf file of the menu itself (like good old shitty local restaurants like Happy Wok have) the webpage had a ‘mobile-friendly’ layout. To look at burgers you hit ‘burgers’ button and can see their selection of burgers. To look at sandwiches you need to click the back button, then click the ‘sandwiches’ button. You cannot see the entire menu at once. Menus are great to browse and selecting a specific food category kneecaps this entirely. I don’t know if I want a burger, a steak, or a sandwich, so why force me to pick certain categories to check out?
The lack of pictures was also disconcerting and doesn’t make sense from the company’s perspective. I’m sure the menu items with pictures sell much more than ones without, and only one of each ‘food category’ had a picture. A picture of a turkey sandwich looks a lot more inciting than a description of said turkey sandwich.
Whatever, maybe I’m just bitching about change here unnecessarily. We ordered, the food came, and we talked.
Our waiter dropped our bill off, and you know those little tabletop electronic devices that you can pay your check on? Yeah, not this time. The little tabletop thingy was still there but had no option to pay; it lost its one useful function. Examining the printed check, my friend noticed a QR code. It was labeled, “Scan the QR code to pay!” Fucking hell, really? This too?
He offered to pay for my meal and called it an ‘early birthday gift,’ which was nice, but the hassle of their new QR system killed part of my soul. He couldn’t scan the thing, I had to remember how to scan the code (having relegated the ‘QR code scanning’ knowledge to my brains trash heap after ordering), and lent him my phone to type in his credit card information.
He handed my phone back to me after paying. “Here, I’ll let you do the rest.” He was talking about the survey. Oh hell yeah, I thought, I can let these fuckers know how awful this visit was. Here’s what I wrote in the comments:
No paper menus? QR code menus? Pay with a QR code? I’m proficient with technology but even this was giving me a goddamn headache.
Image some elderly couple eager to eat out in a post-COVID world. They go to their favorite restaurant, a Chili’s in Rockford, Illinois off of State Street. They sit down, and where are the menus? The waitress tell them to scan a QR code. What is this newfangled technology their talking about? The wife asks her husband what this means and he grunts angrily. He has no idea. It takes all of his effort to pay bills using the internet and now this. He takes his phone out, unlocks it, and stares at all the icons, buttons, and swipes right, left, up, and down. They become visibly distressed and can they just have a paper menu? Why is everything so complicated nowadays? Frustrated, they leave and settle to eat at one of those shitty old-people restaurants. Eight Plates. Nine Forks. Sunrise. Swedish Pancake House. Morning Dew. At least they have paper menus, sure without the fancy pictures and they’re printed in Comic Sans, but they don’t notice and it’s a physical menu.
Sure that’s blown out of proportion — I’m sure if you requested a paper menu they’d oblige — but in the post COVID world I’m assuming this was ‘justified’ by health concerns. Less hand-to-hand interaction between strangers. Less disinfecting the tabletop terminals. You touch your phone all day so what’s the problem with touching it some more to view the menu? Even if you borrow your friend’s phone, they’re your friend and you’re probably sharing more germs with them already than borrowing their phone does.
I’m not a fan of this “health concern” justification, if that’s even the real reason. Remember the drink/appetizer menu that we had? That still exists. And all the menus are laminated anyways; how hard is it to hose each one down with a sanitizing solution between uses? It isn’t. Maybe I’m being a paranoid anti-capitalist but I think COVID gave Chili’s a good excuse to cut costs a bit more. Chili’s is a big, corporate chain so the individual stores don’t print their own menus. It’s not as easy as having a manager fire up his word process/printer and add a ‘1’ to each one of the entrees’ prices, no, someone has to design the menu, print the menus, laminate the menus, package the menus, and ship them to the store. Each of these steps multiplied by how many Chili’s there are means a big expense to the company. Not huge compared to other expenses, but another thing that can be cut. Just pay the menu designers add a few IT people to make a website. Add the QR code to the ‘drink menu’ (because alcohol makes huge money so they can’t cut that menu) that links to the janky website and there ya go. Easy! And the customers will adapt.
And adapt we will sadly. People are dangerously good at adapting, even if it feels like it moves them backward. Look, I love technology — I never have to go to the bank to deposit a check or anything — but the whole point of technology is to make life easier, isn’t it? Netflix: movies without going to the rental place. Downloadable games: games without ordering physical copies. Amazon: shopping from your couch. Online banking with check despots via an app? Fucking great. Online bill pay? I hate driving so thank you. QR code menus? Nah, I don’t like it. It turns a social experience into fucking around on your phone. We eschew personal interactions in favor of our phones often enough to where introducing it one purposefully in a restaurant setting feels slightly evil, like we’re all missing the point. When I’m purposefully trying to not look at my phone to give the other person my full attention the restaurant forces me to dick around on it for five minutes. Ignoring that problem, it’s still just clunky and seems to miss the entire point of technology in the first place. Please give me back my paper menus.
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