Why Online Menus Can Never Replace Printed Ones

Walk into any bar or restaurant these days, and it’s a common occurrence to see QR codes taped to tabletops and customers hunched over their flashing smartphones, scrolling a food or drink menu.

Only a few years ago, this might’ve been hard to imagine. But during the pandemic, of course, many restaurants and bars pivoted to online menus to ensure customer safety. It made sense. After the CDC warned of the spread of COVID via surfaces, no small business owner wanted to unnecessarily risk the health of their customers.

Fast forward to today. The pandemic isn’t exactly over. Instead, it’s become a regular part of our lives. Now we are less concerned about catching COVID from surfaces and more concerned about airborne respiratory droplets. Yet many in the restaurant and bar industry are still celebrating the QR code menus and heralding the demise of the printed menu.

Any number of websites and articles have already pronounced the traditional menu dead. Dozens of hospitality companies and tech startups have stepped in to provide QR code and digital menu software and services. Some restaurants are even giving their customers leather-covered iPads instead of printed menus.

At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, is the printed menu really gone forever? And don’t some of these digital menu solutions seem less about guest safety and satisfaction and more about some technotopian vision of the future of the restaurant and bar industry?

Sure, there are some things that digital menus do really well. But they aren’t the only option, nor are they the best option for some guests and some situations. Online menus are here to stay, but so are printed menus. For more details, please keep reading or check out MustHaveMenus, the leading design software and template provider for restaurants.

Welcome to the Star Wars Cantina

While we wait for holographic menus and restaurants in the Metaverse, online menus provide some definite advantages. Some restaurants and bars will gravitate toward these advantages, as will some customers.

1. More Content

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Proponents of online menus are quick to point out that digitally-based menus can provide you with more content. No longer are you limited to the size and shape of the page. With an online menu, your guests can click easily between pages, scroll endlessly, and be directed to links that might offer the best wine pairing for something like your delicious black cod or short rib.

Not only do online menus provide you with more space for written content, but you can also incorporate high-quality images and even videos into your menu. This is perhaps the biggest advantage a digital menu has over a printed one. We all know the old saying– a picture is worth a thousand words. High-quality images can be a great way of upselling, tempting your customers with that beautifully-garnished cocktail or that mouth-watering sticky toffee pudding.

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2. Real-time Updates

The ability to update your menu in real-time is another undeniable advantage of the online menu. There’s nothing worse than going to a restaurant or bar, pouring over the menu, getting excited for a specific dish, only to find out from the server that the dish is sold out. This is a huge customer-service problem that digital menus solve.

Also, digital menus allow you to more easily update seasonal items and specials. No longer do you have to print hundreds of pages, laminate them, and insert them into your menu books. With a few clicks of a computer, your digital menu editing software can help you update, rearrange, and publish your online menu in a matter of minutes.

3. Less Germs

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Online menus are more sanitary than print menus. This is another advantage that proponents are quick to point out. It’s true. In our pandemic world, many customers are trying to limit the amount of surfaces they touch, and the amount of objects they share with others.

On the other hand, we’ve learned that specifically COVID-19 is less likely to be passed through surfaces than it is through the air. So if your customers are willing to take their masks off to eat, and it would be pretty hard not to, then some would also be likely to peruse a properly sanitized menu. With some restaurants handing out iPads and tablets to their guests, online menus don’t seem to be the cure-all that some diehards make it out to be.

4. Faster Service

Faster service is another potential advantage of online menus. In the future, perhaps we won’t even wait for a server. We sit down with our tablets, scroll through a digital menu, ask a chatbot about gluten-free options, and send our order directly to the kitchen.

This is a possibility. One that’s already being explored by fast-food and casual-dining restaurants. But for the small business owner that doesn’t want to go that far, maybe QR codes at your host stand could be used to speed up the dining process, leading to faster table turnover. Maybe a table-side tablet could help your guests get the attention of a server. These are all realistic advantages of online menus that some restaurants and bars might choose to embrace.

5. Digital Promotions

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Finally, online menus offer you many opportunities for digital promotions. In addition to table tents and fliers, they can work as a bridge between your physical business and your digital promotions.

Whether it’s an open-mic night, a seasonal menu launch, or an Oktoberfest celebration, online menus allow you to promote your events right on your menu, getting your marketing materials directly in front of your customers. Additionally, you can add any kind of social media or review site promotions to your menu, increasing the likelihood of your guests interacting with your virtual presence.

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Of course, you don’t want to overcrowd your menu with promotions. A menu that’s too busy can make it difficult for your guests to find your delicious food and drinks, altogether defeating its purpose.

In Praise of the Analog

At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, not all of your guests will be so eager to adopt table-side technology. Despite what websites and articles might say about the future of the restaurant menu, for a small business owner it should be a guest-driven decision. And many of your guests have good reasons to be skeptical of online menus.

1. The Opening Ceremony

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Let’s be honest. Eating out isn’t just about satiating hunger. Gathering with others and sharing a meal is a deeply ritualistic event. You sit with your friends and family, break bread, and talk with each other.

For many of your guests, the opening of the menu and the lingering over different options represents the opening ceremony of the dining experience. Unlocking your smartphone, scanning a QR code, and scrolling just isn’t the same. It isn’t as easy to do communally and, depending on your restaurant’s vibe, might feel too informal.

2. Technology Burnout

Your guests likely spend hours and hours on screens each day, not always by choice. They are readings and responding to emails, studying reports, joining Zoom meetings, and completing other work-related tasks. By evening, many will want to unplug, drink a craft beer or cocktail, eat a delicious meal, and live in base reality for a bit before they have to do it all over again the next day.

Although it might be nice to put the phone away during lunch too, dinner is the perfect opportunity to reground yourself in the physical world. The work day is over. It’s time to wind down with family. As a small business owner, rather than asking your guests to return to that device they’ve been working on all day, you could give your guests a moment to unplug with a printed menu.

3. Ease of Use

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Despite all of the flashy bells and whistles of technology, let’s not forget the ease of use and the reliability of printed menus.

Printed menus are easier to scan quickly. Even if your menu is long, within a few moments your guests can flip through it and understand its design. This just isn’t the case with online menus. Even if you divide your information into bite-sized chunks and keep your pages relatively short, your guests still can’t flip through your online menu as easily as they can a printed one.

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And for your older guests, digital menus present their own unique challenges. Even if they have the technology and the patience, many will still prefer the ease of a printed menu.

4. Murphy’s Law

Though it might surprise you, some of your guests won’t have smartphones. Or maybe they will have smartphones, but they’re broken or just dead from a long day of use. Then how will your guests access your digital menu? Of course they could borrow a phone from a tablemate, or they could borrow a loaner tablet from your restaurant or bar. Problem solved, right? But what if your WiFi goes down? What if certain cell phone carriers don’t have great coverage in your area?

Murphy’s Law states that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. The more opportunities for something to go wrong with your menu, the more likely it eventually will. Without printed menus, even if only as a backup, it would be pretty difficult to navigate technological issues. Online menus can fail in many ways, most of which are out of your control. But a good old printed menu is pretty foolproof.

5. Better Branding

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For most of your guests, your menu is their first interaction with your restaurant or bar’s dining service experience. First impressions are everything, and even if you have a slick and well-crafted online menu, a printed menu offers more opportunities for emphasizing your brand.

The size of a smartphone’s screen is just too small to offer the same amount of branding opportunities. Not only that but the need to scroll and click back and forth between pages makes it harder for you to control the impression you want to leave, whether sophisticated or casual, posh or family-friendly.

Long Live the Printed Menu!

Finally, online menus can never replace printed ones because online menus need printed menus. Offering print menus with an optional QR code connected to your digital menu is the best way to embrace the advantages of both.

The two options aren’t mutually exclusive. Printed menus can do some things better than online menus, and online menus can do some things better than printed one. But online menus need the physical, printed menu to bridge the gap between your restaurant or bar and its online counterpart.

Why choose a printed menu over an online menu, or vice versa, when you could have both? Give them all of the content, promotions, and real-time updates that online menus can provide, but also give them the well-branded, foolproof, and easy experience of a traditional printed menu and a QR code.

And whether you want to redesign your printed menu or create your very first online one, there are a lot of menu maker tools to get you started. Give your customers a printed menu and access to an online menu. Let the customer decide. They’ll thank you for it.