Restaurants Become Digital for In Person Dining

In class we have talked about companies or industries that have made digital jumps in the pandemic that otherwise would have taken them ten years to complete. This brought to mind one of my favorite industries, the restaurant business. While I do not believe the transformation that many restaurants went through during the pandemic for in person dining would have taken ten years, it’s fair to say that it was a fairly significant move to become digital. When I went back to dining at restaurants in June 2020 after the initial lockdown, I was impressed by the progress restaurants had taken to make their operations more technologically advanced in order to better serve the customers during a pandemic. In this blog I am going to go into a deeper dive on a couple of actions restaurants took to become digital very quickly and examine whether these developments are here to stay.  


Online reservations have been around long before the pandemic, but they never were as important as they have become now. OpenTable, Resy and Yelp are the major players in the online reservation space. Customers have enjoyed using these services because they can lock up definite plans for popular, busy restaurants well in advance. Restaurants embraced online reservations because made their hosts jobs easier. They no longer have to take reservations by phone or deal with streams of people coming in to make reservations in person.

As the pandemic hit, the function of online reservations shifted from a planning tool for the consumer to actually more of a planning tool for the restaurants. When lockdowns and restrictions started to lift across the country, many states enacted capacity limits on in person dining for restaurants. It became very difficult for restaurants to predict demand and to accurately plan off of that. Reservations allowed the restaurants to see in advance how many people were going to be in the restaurant that day, which allowed them to staff accurately and try to have enough supplies on hand. The online systems also provided the restaurants the ability to easily conform to local restrictions on capacity, which changed frequently. Customers also benefited in this COVID environment of online reservations because every time they booked a table, they would be informed and reminded of the safety guidelines that the restaurant was following.

QR Codes

Another major digital change in restaurants comes with how customers read the menu and order food. Prior to the pandemic, I’m not sure many customers gave a second thought at how many people touch a given physical menu on a normal day or week. It became clear that this would have to be an area of change in order to limit the spread of germs and possible illness. QR codes were a quick response to this issue. QR codes (abbreviated from Quick Response) have been around since the 1990s but have seen a surge in popularity before and during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, there was a 13% increase in QR scans in the United States between 2018 and 2020. This number has surely skyrocketed in the past year.

Smartphones have the ability to read these codes and direct the consumer to a page or app to continue with their transaction. In restaurants, this means directing customers to a virtual menu or to a platform that facilitates online ordering. This has several benefits for the customers and restaurants. A major positive outcome for each is that it limits contact between customers and waitstaff. It also can free up time for the waitstaff to complete other tasks. For example, if the restaurant is using a platform that allows customers to place an order for their table virtually, they will not have to make as many trips to the table to take their order. This could also allow the restaurant to have less waitstaff working at a given time.

The online platforms also provide opportunities for greater engagement between the customers and restaurant. When a customer is scanning a menu or ordering food, the restaurant can push items like surveys or loyalty programs in a subtle way towards the patron. Customers may also be able to view videos or pictures of the menu items they are considering, which could entice them to order more than they previously may have. Greater feedback between the customer and restaurant can benefit both parties.

Here to stay?

The digital transformation of in person dining at restaurants has happened quickly. It raises the question of whether it is just a temporary response to a health crisis or is it here for the long term? Reservations surely will continue into the future for restaurants, but the way they function may change. A more common practice during the pandemic has been requiring a credit card to book a table in order to prevent against no-shows and to collect some revenue in the case that the table remains vacant for that reservation time period. Customers find this tedious and unnecessary when they are trying to make a quick reservation. A new approach that has been rolled out by the major reservation platforms is an online waitlist. This would allow more customers to spontaneously go to the restaurant in their area and would fill the issue of vacant tables from failed reservations. Traditional reservations for upscale and popular restaurants will probably not go away. However, rolling online waitlists for ordinary restaurants are likely to become more prevalent.

Online menus and platforms that are accessed through QR codes are also likely to stay through the pandemic. At the very least they can function as an extra menu for the table. They also can evolve into a more dynamic way for customers and restaurants to communicate. It’s ease of use is demonstrated in the statistic that 87% of smartphone users have reported to have scanned a QR code at least once in their lifetime. However, there are some demographics and restaurant types that QR codes and online platforms will not be as successful for post-pandemic. The older generation that still struggles to use a smartphone or does not own a smartphone will have a more difficult time adjusting. Restaurants like steakhouses will likely opt for a more glamorous approach with physical menus as well.

What are your thoughts on how technology has impacted in person dining during the pandemic? Do you like the changes that have taken place? Do you think they will continue into the “new normal”?



  1. therealerindee · ·

    I am so glad someone finally took this topic on. I feel like we’ve batted it around in class quite a few times. I believe a lot of the changes restaurants have made are definitely here to stay like the online reservations and menus, however I wouldn’t be surprised if the QR codes/online ordering kind of falls to the wayside. Personally, I think QR code menus are not ideal as you often have to scroll all over the place or flip between different parts of the menu which is not an ideal user experience. I also realized when I went to dinner with a few members of the Baby Boomer generation, the QR codes are a nightmare to use and become even more of a nightmare if they then have to place their order through the phone. They just kept asking “Where’s the waiter? I see people working here, which one is our waiter?” Which was super fun. Restaurants did a great job pivoting to ensure survival, and I believe at this point most of them have figured out what’s working and what isn’t, so I think we will start to see some differentiation as things stabilize a bit.

  2. Great post! Restaurant reservation is always a painful experience pre-covid, you have to make phone calls to the restaurant, and sometimes, especially for popular restaurants, nobody answers the phone calls. I was always wondering why could they. just put their reservations online. Probably they know they are popular so they don’t care? However, if there are multiple restaurant options for me to choose from, I would definitely go with the one that has online reservations since it is much easier to get what dates and what time slots are available to book so that I don’t have to waste my time on the phone with the someone on the restaurant side deciding which date and time work for both of us. I found OpenTable is so much convenient after it integrates into Yelp, you can just find the restaurant on Yelp and make a reservation right away using the OpenTable feature inside the Yelp app,. OpenTable was actually one of my most-used apps pre-covid.

  3. Jie Zhao · ·

    It’s interesting to see how all these technologies have been around for a while, but we only started to use them more often since covid hit. As for making a reservation, I sure hope that is here to stay as it definitely saved me a lot of time and frustration waiting outside in the cold for the host to call my name. As for the QR code, I’m surprised that so many people haven’t used it in the U.S. until recently as it has been commonly used in other countries for many years. Basically every restaurant, pamphlets, ads you see there’s a QR code attached. I am, however, not sure if I enjoy reading off a menu on my phone and I feel like it’s just taking away from the dining experience. One feature I’d love to see in Yelp/Open Table is whether there are outdoor seatings and more accurate hours due to pandemic. There have been too many times where I look up restaurants (especially the smaller/local ones) and try to search for pictures to see if there are outdoor seatings but unable to find them.

  4. abigailholler1 · ·

    This post is something we can definitely all relate to, as most of us have experienced the impacts to the restaurant industry through COVID. I have to say, I am a big fan of many of the pivots in the restaurant industry that you’ve noted above. The use of online reservation platforms and QR codes are not only more efficient, but they also have environmental benefits. As you noted, online reservation tools allow restaurants to more accurately predict how busy their restaurant will be on a given day, which can allow them to plan ahead for ingredients. This reduces (yep, you guessed it) food waste! Additionally, the wastefulness of throwing out paper menus each night is now a thing of the past – with QR codes, restaurants are not only running more efficiently by not having to print menus daily, but they can also change menu items almost instantaneously with the use of an online platform.

  5. sayoyamusa · ·

    Great post! Restaurant business is also my favorite and really enjoyed your blog! These moves will be definitely here to stay (the waitlist idea looks especially new and beneficial to me.) I wonder why the digitalization would not have been implemented earlier even before the COVID-19 since it has lost of merits for both restaurants and guests…they might be afraid that automation would deteriorate their service quality? In fact, “order touch panel” system has been prevailed long before the pandemic in Japan. It was convenient and efficient but gave somewhat cheap impression at that time…I’m curious how people are now feeling about using it.
    Japanese Izakaya’s order touch panel:

  6. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    loved the post! I believe the QR codes and online ordering will continue post pandemic, but not in all restaurants/bars. I think fancier restaurants will return to paper menus and interacting with the guests, as that is key for theit hospitality. However, less fancier restaurants and bars will continue to use these features to continue improving efficiency.

  7. Great post. The other night I was at dinner with my wife. We had reservations that I made online through OpenTable. What was interesting to me, when I showed up at 6:55 a few minutes before my reservation, there were several other groups doing the same thing. The restaurant had decided to do planned sitting times for all guests. This is something that I hope will stay after the pandemic leaves. I felt less rushed with a group of people being under the same constraints than I do when I go to a restaurant and they say I have the same 90 minutes.

  8. Perfect timing for this post. Our WSJ interview with the CEO of Olo (a restaurant ordering platform) just dropped yesterday.

  9. alexcarey94 · ·

    Great post- I am an avid user of OpenTable (pre and during pandemic!) I think it is so much easier than waiting on a line to call or showing up hoping there are open tables. As for QR codes for menus I don’t love this as many said above I think it is somewhat harder to navigate the menu or chat about specific things at the table that look good (i.e you cant point and share with people at your table). One thing I found cool when I recently went to Harpoon is the are utilizing the order online function in the brewery. So you order and pay on your phone and someone brings you the drinks to your table (also on the app it is not marked on the table so I think there are different QR codes at each table). I thought this was a cool use of tech especially in a brewery where in the future you may not want to wait up at the bar for service for a drink but you have the ability to stay talking with your friends while a drink is on the way over! It also didn’t seem like they had to have a lot of extra employees to make this work… as people who would typically be spread behind the bar were pouring and running drinks over. I hope this stays post COVID!

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