What's black and white and read all over? Five years ago the answer was a newspaper, but times have changed. Now the answer is…a QR code.

In its simplest definition, a QR code is a two-dimensional barcode. QR stands for “quick response” and while it might look like a black and white kaleidoscope from the 1980s, the codes hold practical business purposes and are popping up all over the place.

With the help of a smartphone or iPad, consumers can download a free app that enables them to scan the barcode, which directs them to a Web site of the business’ choosing: a Twitter page, restaurant menu, business profile, YouTube video – virtually anything with a dotcom address.

Rather than bombarding the viewer with too much info, a QR serves as a quick link to viewers/customers interested in learning more about a product or service.

Already immensely popular in Japan, South Korea and other parts of Asia, QR codes are starting to gain momentum in the U.S.

Indeed, they are popping up everywhere from e-mail signatures and business cards to “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and even gravestones.

When a QR code is placed in a storefront’s window, shoppers can simply scan the code and instantly learn more about the designers featured in the window display or available inventory. In this sense, QR codes help bring offline customers online. In short, the goal of QR codes, like that of social media or the internet-at large is: to reconcile the virtual and physical world.

For interested small business owners, there are a host of QR code generators available for free and easy to use.

Check out these three small business owners’ innovative use of QR codes.


Policy

QR Code Generator: e-Buzz Edge 

Policy started as an idea among childhood friends in 2007. Slowly the details and concepts came together and in March 2009, the restaurant and lounge opened its doors in the nation’s capital.

In fall 2010, Policy started using QR codes to help spread the word and get more patrons. "In a world where everyone wants quick and accurate information in the palm of their hands, we wanted it to be as easy as possible to get them in the doors," said Tiffany Penn, special events manager for Policy Restaurant and Lounge.

Policy places QR codes in its front window by the menu box; some of the codes take customers directly to the menu tab on its Web site while another code directs to reservations and a third to directions.

At the end of dinner, Policy gives patrons a card to sign up for its email list, but even if they don't sign up the QR code on the card directs them to the restaurant’s Web site.

"Our younger, tech-savvy clientele loved it. They thought it was the coolest thing ever,” said Penn. “Our more mature crowd asked questions, which was helpful because it gave us another avenue to engage conversation with clients."

But Penn stressed QR codes are just one part of Policy's larger social media mission. "We are huge advocates for social media. From day one, we have been active with Facebook, Twitter, foursquare, the list goes on…"


Quiring Monuments

QR Code generator: Kaywa 

When William Quiring started Quiring Monuments in Wichita, Kan., in the late 1800s, it's unlikely he envisioned QR-tagged gravestones. But now, more than a century later, amidst the zeitgeist of smarphones, iPads and the Internet (and social media specifically) QR codes are a very real part of memorialization.

"We have always wanted to add more information to our memorials and I have been searching for ways to do this," explained owner David Quiring, William Quiring's great nephew.

While the company was always looking for headstone enhancements, the birth of the QR code showed Quring an opportunity unlike any before to reconcile the virtual and physical memorial: QR codes on headstones.

Quiring Monuments uses a special 3M adhesive to laser a special plastic, copper-plated tag onto granite headstones. "It will survive in an outdoor environment for many generations," said Quiring.

Visitors then use their smartphone camera (and a downloaded free app) to scan the QR code on their loved one’s headstone, which directs them to the deceased "Living Headstone"TM URL.

The "Living Headstone"TM URLs are public, but only designated administrators (typically family and loved ones) can make updates like adding photos, movies, audio clip or playlists. Family and friends who live around the world can leave birthday or holiday wishes on the page just like they would leave flowers if they were closer.

"Cemeteries hold the life stories of our neighbors, and mostly, those stories have ended there,” said Quiring. “Now, we can make them repositories of the loves and dreams of the individuals whose stories can inspire future generations."

Quiring Monuments’ QR codes aren't just applied to individual headstones, they're also used on large civic veterans memorials, linking names to "Living Memorial"TM tags.

"I think it will be revolutionary in that it binds together older and newer generations. Young folks can see memorialization as more compatible with their connected lives and can find more value in cemeteries."

QR codes and links are free with any purchase of a Quiring memorial and can be added to existing memorials for a small fee.


Taranta

QR Code Designer: Benoit Dupard

In 2000, Taranta opened as a southern Italian restaurant. Four years later Chef and Owner Jose Duarte discovered he wasn’t alone: there were more than 250 Italian restaurants within his two-mile radius. Knowing he needed to make his restaurant stand out in a saturated market, he decided to marry Peruvian cuisine with Italian technique.

Duarte found his inspiration for QR codes six years ago at a conference in Madrid when he saw Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto using a generic edible code linking to a recipe. Duarte wanted to replicate it, but he had to wait until January 2011for the device to be ready for the U.S.

French designer Benoit Dupard designed a customized QR code for Taranta with the shape of a fish on it.

Taranta also has rubber stamp QR codes and silk screen QR codes on fish orders so customers can scan the code on the plate to find out where and when the fish was caught, by whom and when it was delivered to the restaurant.

Duarte didn't stop there in his self-proclaimed “code madness” – he even created a branding iron to stamp a corn tortilla with a QR.

QR codes aren't the only new media Taranta uses; six years ago Duarte started a blog,tarantagreen.com and he's also on Facebook and Twitter.

Duarte said mobile technology is an important way of connecting with foodies. "Mobile technology is growing very fast. We want to be ahead."

But while Duarte offers his patrons shiny new toys, he's a proponent of old-fashioned table manners. "I'm not intending to have my customers scan codes during dinner. I consider the use of mobile devices during dinner very distracting and impolite."

Primarily, Duarte intends the codes to be used in demos, classes or with customers interested in food sourcing. Plus, tracking the fish also serves an internal sourcing purpose for Taranta.

Duarte plans to also start posting the QR code outside of the restaurant to create coupons or promotions to increase business. “We are at the experimental stages but through our QR codes and website, our customers can seamlessly navigate our menu, make reservations, find out specials, coupons…they can even pay ahead for a glass…they can even pay ahead for a glass of wine at dinner."

 

You named your small business, you set up a Web site, and you even started seeing profits from it. What's next? You could set up a profile page on a social networking site, such as Facebook or Myspace. And/or you may want to head to Twitter, the member-based site that boasts of allowing you to virtually shout your company's message from a technological rooftop.

Every week, Fox Small Business Center will highlight companies that are making their brand known through social media. As small businesses, you are on the frontlines of re-starting our economy, and we want your voice to be heard.