Inflation is Enshittifying Restaurant Menus

I have officially reached grumpy old age.

It wasn’t when I found my first gray hair. It wasn’t when doctors started signing me up for tests ending in -ogram or -oscopy. It was yesterday, when I found myself kvetching with several friends about how QR codes are replacing printed menus in restaurants.

Let’s get Grandma to bed. But first, a word on QR code restaurant menus. Because, as it turns out, they’re not merely becoming more popular to remind us 40somethings that our time has passed.

This morning, I ran across a piece discussing how businesses can cut printing costs by using QR codes. Even as a writer, I don’t typically think of printing costs as a significant budget item. Even the estimate that printing costs can run north of $700 per employee per year seems like small potatoes.

Then I remembered that printing costs have been rising faster than overall inflation ever since pandemic-related supply chain issues cramped the entire printing industry. Fair. (I’m starting to feel like inflation rates of every good/service, taken individually, are rising faster than overall inflation. But that’s another post.)

But printing costs aren’t the only form of inflation placing pressure on restaurants to find alternatives to print menus. Inflation in the restaurant industry is also pushing costs north. And every time a restaurant raises its menu prices, it needs new menus – or it needs to cross out all the old prices and write in the new higher ones.

Enter QR codes, which solve both the printing problem and the “make someone sit down with a Sharpie and change all the $9.99s to $12.99s” problem. For restaurants. And by “solve,” I mean “externalize onto customers.” As with so many problems in so many industries, the introduction of technology doesn’t so much address a root issue as force consumers to bear the brunt of it.

Digital menu prices can be changed with a couple keystrokes, and they leave no evidence of change. In the name of making information more readily available to customers, QR-code menus obscure the fact that prices are rising. They also cut out a small but growing segment of customers, who – surprisingly – are more likely to be in their 20s than their 80s.

Not to reach AARP-card levels of elderly self-righteousness, but: There’s something to Team Geriatric Millennial’s dislike of QR code menus. Our instinct that replacing physical menus with QR codes represents a form of “enshittification” is dead on. QR code menus are a symptom of end-stage capitalism’s descent into shit that serves no one.

Now get off my lawn.

Granny needs her Geritol: leave a tip, please.