It’s just after 10:30pm at 7 Bamboo when a drumroll bursts from the PA and a man bearing the name “Dick Greyson” takes the stage. So far, the music at the San Jose karaoke bar has been a lively mix of hip hop, alt rock and Selena. But now, a tooting oompah beings to play, the already-loosened crowd swaying as the man named after Batman’s protege extols the virtues of Beauty and the Beast villain Gaston:
“No one’s quick as Gaston / No one’s slick as Gaston / No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston’s.”
The crowd joins in, a roomful of voices crooning in support of the fictional cockscomb. Even the drinkless swing their arms as if hoisting steins. By the time the song reaches its instrumental break, 7 Bamboo erupts in uproarious applause.
Sixteen months after California’s bars and clubs shut down, Saturday night feels like it is back in San Jose. A few minutes after “Dick Greyson,” a man gets up to bellow Johnny Cash’s eternal “Ring of Fire.” The amped crowd claps along on the downbeats, chanting: “Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn!”
Located in San Jose’s Japantown, 7 Bamboo has been bringing music to Jackson St. since 1983, when the Umehara family purchased it from its original owners. Since 2014, Bamboo has been owned by the management at nearby Jack’s. Along with a sleek interior redesign with tendrils of LED flowers, one of the first changes made by the new management was swapping out the song books for an online system.
“The binders of songs—that did not look fun to manage or update,” says owner Jordan Trigg.
Since reopening post-COVID, there have been some additional changes at Bamboo. Out front, twin flat screens in the streetside windows now allow patrons on the parklet—also recently added—to view both performer and lyric simultaneously.
And while the three-ring binders are long gone, now so too are the flashcards and golf pencils for turning in song selections.
When someone wants to join the queue these days, they scan one of the many QR codes posted around the bar. The code links to karaoke app Songbooks Online, where they can login or create an ID to access the available songs, and then sign up for their spot in the glimmering light of the stage.
“It’s super straightforward—unless you’ve had a few drinks,” Trigg says, laughing. “There’s a few hiccups, but we’re getting good feedback. It’s getting better each week.”
QR (or “Quick Response”) codes were first introduced in Japan way back in 1994, their chunky black and white design inspired by the layout of a Go board. Using a camera phone to scan one of the pixelated squares can fulfil a variety of tasks, from sending a vCard contact, to auto-filling a form—to signing up for karaoke.
Despite having been around for almost three decades, QR codes have had a rocky rollout in the U.S. Critics have voiced concerns that requiring a smartphone excludes the poor, the unhoused and the technologically-averse. And at a bar, staring at your phone can come across as antisocial, or—worse—basic.
The pandemic, however, has accelerated the use of QR codes in America, initially for sanitary reasons, though increasingly for others.
“It’s another expense for us if we’re constantly printing paper menus,” says Cache Bouren, owner of downtown cocktail bar Haberdasher.
Bouren has been an owner of the basement bar since it was a high-concept speakeasy called Single Barrel. After splitting with his partner in 2015, Bouren guided the downstairs joint to its current form as a more straightforward cocktail bar. At the moment, he’s also preparing to open another establishment downtown: Cash Only, a honky-tonk themed bar currently taking shape in the former Dive Bar on Santa Clara.
At Haberdasher, Bouren says printing menus used to cost the bar between $0.14-$0.18 per page, “plus hundreds of dollars every month on ink cartridges.
“All of those things add up,” he points out.
In addition to the cost of printing paper menus, there is also the issue of waste, which becomes pronounced when a bar regularly rotates taps. Gonzalo Acevedo, Manager at Camino Brewing just on the other side of 280, says that prior to the pandemic, the brewery was printing around 80 menus a day. By switching to restaurant-style seating with a QR code posted at each table, they’ve decreased that number dramatically.
“We do accommodate guests who want paper menus, but I don’t print more than 5 a day,” Acevedo says.
That’s 75 sheets of paper saved per day. With the brewery open 6 days a week, it adds up to more than 23,000 sheets of paper in a year.
“It was wasteful,” says Bouren at Haberdasher. “We were constantly throwing these menus away. I gotta be honest with you, we all have this device in our pocket, why aren’t we more used to using it?”
Perhaps we should be. A recent Esquire article that quoted higher ups and marketing professionals in the food and beverage industry concluded “It Seems QR Code Menus Are Here to Stay.” Two of the primary reasons cited: cost and waste.
Certainly there remain holdouts, customers who resist the onslaught of the two-tone scannables—though they are dwindling in number.
“Some people still don’t like them, but the majority of customers have become comfortable with using their device,” Bourne says.
That’s good, because Esquire might have been right about QR codes being here to stay. 7 Bamboo, Haberdasher, Camino, Miniboss and a number of other bars scattered around downtown all plan on making them permanent.
“It’s been for the best,” says Acevedo. “We’ve adopted new policies, but it's all for safety, and our customers appreciate us for it.”
Loved, hated or merely tipsily scanned and moved on from, QR codes are now a part of a night out downtown. And after one of the hardest years imaginable for the industry, they’ve been helping bars all around the South Bay navigate their return to business. Now, more than a month after California’s reopening, nearly all of the South Bay’s nightlife spots are either opening back up, opening for the first time, or preparing to open soon.
So remember: when heading out to get in on the South Bay bar scene, charge your phone ahead of time—you might need it.
Grace Stetson, Syrus Fotovat and Metro staff contributed to this story.