It was mid-afternoon when Rebecca Kottke arrived at Gray's, a Dinkytown cafe, and headed for the counter to purchase a cup of coffee. Because of the off-peak hour, a staffer steered her to a table, where she could order the drink with her smartphone by scanning a black-and-white pixelated square.

The University of Minnesota student said such QR codes are common at eateries she frequents, and she uses them regularly with little difficulty. But that wasn't always the case. "The first couple times I used them, I gave up on them," Kottke admitted. "One time I literally left the shop because I didn't have time to figure it out."

Back in the early 2000s, QR codes started showing up everywhere, from print ads to product tags to signage. Businesses trying to display their tech savvy even slapped them on bananas and gravestones.

Over time, QR sightings became sparse. But when the pandemic turned shared surfaces and personal interactions into potential virus spreaders, QR codes re-emerged as a safer alternative. They're now a fixture of urban life, posted on parking meters and at retail stores. And improved smartphones have transformed the much-maligned marketing gimmick into a relatively seamless conduit for DIY digital transactions.

The digital widgets have become especially popular in the hospitality industry. The National Restaurant Association reports that half of all full-service restaurants have adopted them.

On one hand, QR codes can be a quick, convenient, self-contained option for guests and help businesses reduce staff costs and collect customer information. On the other hand, they can make ordering and paying more fraught for diners, shift their attention from people to screens and alienate the 15% of Americans who don't own smartphones.

Whether or not QR codes are here to stay depends on how, and where, they're used.

QR's debut

QR codes, or Quick Response codes, are akin to a two-dimensional bar code, capable of storing far more information. QR codes were invented in 1994 at a Japanese auto parts maker, which used them to track inventory.

The codes were widely adopted by consumers in Asia before arriving in the United States. They functioned, essentially, as a mobile, "real world" hyperlink; scan the symbol with a smartphone, and a web page would load.

In some applications, QR codes made sense. Boarding flights without need for a paper ticket, for example. Or looking up a property for sale or rent without tapping in a long URL. But often QR codes felt like a solution in search of a problem, introducing unnecessary frustration and hassle.

When QR codes first rolled out, a separate app was necessary to read them. Early phone cameras struggled to decipher the images. And overzealous marketers slapped the squares up in nonsensical places, from freeway billboards to employee uniforms, as if scanning while driving or scanning a person was a safe or humane thing to do.

QR's return

Their resurgence has been more widely embraced by the public, though they're far from universally beloved.

Kottke isn't really a fan of QR codes, but she's happy to use them if it helps the business. "I feel like it wouldn't be responsible for them to have a bunch of waiters and cashiers and cooks and baristas when it's not that busy," she said. (Cheqout, a mobile ordering and payment system, claims restaurants can save 30-50% on labor costs with QR code menus.)

Preference for a digital or human transaction probably depends on your personality.

"I have friends who are like, 'I don't want to talk to people,' so if they have a QR code, they'll use it," Kottke said. "But I'd rather just go up and order with a person."

There's also a tech — and perhaps a generational — divide.

Austin Doan, a young U of M alum hanging out at Gray's, prefers QR-code ordering to in-person. But he acknowledged that the less tech-savvy may not feel the same. "My mom doesn't use them. She says, 'Let me see a real menu.' "

QR success

Context also plays a role in guests' acceptance of QR codes, said Eric Carrara, who runs three Twin Cities restaurants with his wife, Vanessa. At their upscale Italian Eatery, near Lake Nokomis, they rely on traditional service. "People are coming to have a server take them through the dining experience," he said. "If it's a fine-dining, sit-down restaurant and you put a QR code on the table, you're going to alienate your customers."

But at Un Dito, a casual snack bar the Carraras opened next to Italian Eatery this summer, QR codes have been a win-win.

Un Dito diners place their initial order with a staff member at the counter, but they have the option of placing subsequent orders via QR codes on the tables. Customer response has been overwhelmingly positive. "It's not just millennials or Xers, it's everyone," Carrara said.

With a counter-order system, diners contemplating another round of drinks or food often forgo them, not wanting to leave their table and wait in line, Carrara explained. With the QR codes, nearly 40% of Un Dito diners reorder, and the business' higher fees for the codes is more than offset by increased customer spending. "They would have just left if that QR code wasn't there," he said.

QR canceled

Chef Daniel del Prado has used QR codes at the three more casual of his six Twin Cities restaurants. But he's removed them from Colita and Cardamom in Minneapolis. And he plans to phase them out from Rosalia soon.

While the codes reduced staff and customer contact during the pandemic, customers found the system confusing and cumbersome. When del Prado tried it for himself, he agreed. ("If you have a group of people in a table, each one has to set up an account," he lamented.)

Also, as a heavy phone user, del Prado likes to keep his social time tech-free. "When I go out to dinner, I don't want to be on my phone because I might see a text or an e-mail that's going to ruin my night," he explained. Plus, it was "weird" to look around his dining rooms and see customers absorbed in their screens.

Theoretically, servers could handle more guests simultaneously with the QR code system, del Prado said, but some said it diminished the interactions they loved. "Career servers hated it," del Prado said. "It's a little impersonal."

Del Prado said that QR codes may make sense at some restaurants – during his three recent trips to New York City, they were everywhere — but not his. Perhaps that's because, with del Prado, even a pizzeria's vibe is more heels-and-wine than sweatshirt-and-beer, which means guests expect more attentiveness.

"On paper, it sounds good," del Prado said of QR codes. "But I think people prefer the regular service. So we give people what they want."