How Upserve Helps Bluegrass Grow 5-8% Each Year

Upserve has helped full-service restaurant Bluegrass increase profits each year by helping owner Jim Lederer:

  • Achieve a deeper understanding of each menu item’s profitability and popularity
  • Identify key loyal customers and top tippers
  • Measure individual server performance
  • Spend more time with his family thanks to daily emailed reports.

Jim Lederer was destined to work in restaurants. As a teen, he took house parties to a new level by hosting hundreds of people, charging $5 at the door, and providing guests with food and drinks. He made a few hundred bucks a weekend and caught the buzz to pursue a career in hospitality, albeit one with a touch more sophistication.

After studying business and computers, Lederer embarked on a career in the food industry. He saw consumer preference trending more casual, and many businesses slow to pivot with them.

“I decided at that point I’d start creating my niche,” he says, adding that he had tried to go out on his own a few times throughout his career to varying degrees of success. With each failure came a lesson learned, and by age 40-and-a-half, just six months after his personal goal, he opened Bluegrass in Highland Park, Illinois.

The 85-seat full-service restaurant is all-American, from the wine and craft beer lists that feature American makers, to the menu, which celebrates the melting pot with dishes like steak, seafood, Asian stir fry, gumbo and jambalaya. It’s a concept that has been going strong for 14 years.

“We’ve been very fortunate. Since 2008, we’ve increased sales by anywhere from five to eight percent each year, at least,” Lederer says.

Bluegrass pasta and bottle of white wine

Staying Versatile Is Key

“My background is more fine dining, and service will never go out of style; service can’t be replaced,” he says. Still, “The food business has changed quite a bit since we opened up 14 years ago. It’s either change or be changed. And that’s in any business. If you’re running the business the way you were 10 years ago, you’re probably not doing well.”

By taking advantage of the in-depth analytics available to him as an Upserve customer, Lederer has been able to stay ahead of the curve, grow his business, and buck the notion that restaurants are quick to fail.

Smaller Portion Sizes Mean Bigger Profits

When Bluegrass first opened, portion sizes were so large that customers were routinely taking half home as leftovers, a practice that also increased supply costs since the restaurant had to have so many to-go containers on hand.

“As the world shifted in 2008, everybody wanted to eat out more frequently and spend less, so we decreased our portion size so people could eat less and eat better, more frequently,” he says, adding that Bluegrass now even offers half portions at 60 to 75 percent of full price. “At the beginning, I was extremely concerned and nervous because our check average was dropping, yet our profitability was going up.”

Bluegrass Louisiana BBQ Shrimp

Menu Design Matters

“This business is nickels on the dollar, and either you know it’s moving or it’s not,” Lederer says.

He says more than changing menu items—the menu is 80 percent the same as it was when Bluegrass first opened—he has experimented with changing the look of the menu itself by switching to an outside designer to handling design and printing in-house.

“I’ve done a lot of work with psychology and how to put things on menus,” he says. “We read, yet we don’t really read. Like when you put a box on an item—all those little tools actually do really work. And it’s pretty simple, yet most people don’t try.”

In addition to special menus for Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo, a summer Barbecue Fest, and Oktoberfest, Bluegrass also regularly rotates the standard menus to see if dishes suddenly catch guests’ attention.

“We move things around—front page, back page, third page,” Lederer says. “The regulars would say, ‘I didn’t know you had this on your menu,’ and they’ve been coming here for years.”

Bluegrass chicken and sausage gumbo mardi gras

Customer Insights Help Improve Overall Guest Experience

Lederer and his staff routinely use Upserve’s Guest Book feature to get a peek into guest behavior, from frequency of visits to tipping. Unlike other services, Upserve ties metrics to guests’ credit cards, he notes, providing a deeper understanding of the customer base.

“We’ve always monitored tips through our reports, but now I get the customer’s name tied to it, which is powerful,” Lederer says. “Fine dining business is really knowing your guest and giving the guest what he wants before he knows he wants it. We always know who our guests are when they call up.”

He says that while OpenTable can provide a certain subset of reservation data, “that doesn’t really give us how much they’re spending. The spending part really gives you the next piece of how often do they come in?” Lederer says. “So you can categorize your top 25 guests, the number of visits, the check average, the number of guests they bring in. So we make sure that the front [understands] that when this guy calls up, you better get him in. This is our bread and butter. Of course, the best tippers, I can say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he really tipped that well. That’s fantastic. I want to make sure we get him in here.’”

bluegrass ahi tuna

Using Data Keeps Staff Happy and Motivated

Big tippers mean satisfied servers, no small factor when considering restaurant turnover and the cost to replace and retrain an employee.  

“My job is to bring people in. I bring people to the front door, and they take care of them,” Lederer explains. “As I sit down with my staff, I pretty much explain that: ‘If we’re busy, you’re making money, you’re going to be happy.’”

And while he hires staff more for personality than technical prowess—”We can overcome mistakes very easily with a smile”—statistical insights certainly help improve performance.

“Staff training is an ongoing, daily regimen, and we’re always teaching and training and trying to get them to educate the consumer,” he says, adding that he utilizes Upserve’s reporting to “absorb the knowledge and teach the staff, and get a look to see who’s selling appetizers, who’s selling desserts, who’s selling wine, and address it on an individual basis.”

Bluegrass Short Rib

Working Smarter, Not Harder

One way Lederer shows appreciation for his staff is by granting two vacation weeks each year so they can enjoy some relaxation with families over the holidays and during the summer. As a father, he values that family time and runs his business accordingly. By receiving Upserve’s Daily Digest email in his inbox each morning, Lederer is able to spend more time away from the restaurant without feeling out of touch.

“Part of what I’ve tried to do in my life in the last few years is spend less time here, and more time other places,” he says. “[Upserve’s Daily Digest] has allowed me to maintain awareness of what’s going on. How many of this or that did we sell last night? How’s the wine moving? How’s the beer moving? What were the top three sellers last night?”

Bluegrass Mardi Gras celebration

Enjoying Business Growth

With the continued success of Bluegrass, Lederer seriously considered expanding to a second location, but decided rather than stretch himself too thin, he’d rather focus on growing the business he had.

“It was a great opportunity, but do I need that? My kids had just finished college and I said, let me take a couple years and see if I can just make this one business be more profitable, and focus on that, and see if I could have more fun,” he says. “So the last few years I’ve been really focusing on having more fun and making more money, and really changing the way I ran the business, and looking at things with a very stern eye. It’s either working or it’s not. If it’s not, it’s out, it’s done.”

Upserve has allowed him to make those changes by providing the information he needs to make the most informed choices.

“In any business, if you know your guests and you can anticipate their needs, that’s what the constant goal is. If you’re not meeting your needs, and you’re not paying attention to your guests, you won’t be there very long anyway,” he says. “Upserve’s tools allow us to better get to know our guests, to nurture them and allow us to flourish.”