He may be famous for his Food Network show, Restaurant Stakeout, but Willie Degel is also a successful restaurateur. The New York native owns and operates the high-end Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, which has three locations in the metropolis, and the fast-casual Jack’s Shack, which is rapidly expanding to a handful of locations in New York City. Known for his almost obsessive attention to detail, Degel is very meticulous about his restaurants — in the best way possible. He carries those practices into Restaurant Stakeout when he helps troubled restaurateurs turn their eateries around by finding the underlying problems. He started his career as a bartender, and it was then that he found his passion for making restaurants the best they possibly can be. Degel opened his first eatery, Hollywood and Main, in 1990 in Flushing, Queens. Six years later, he debuted the first Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse in Bayside, Queens, which was an immediate success. And now, he’s talking to us about his personal journey from start-up operator to culinary standout.
What are your favorite restaurants?
I don’t have that many favorite restaurants around the world because I don’t travel that much and I’m very picky. Sometimes I wish that when I do travel that I wasn’t in the business so that I wouldn’t be so picky and I can enjoy the experience more and turn that switch off. I’m always looking at what everybody’s doing. Going out is much more like an education to me, so I don’t have that many favorites. I really enjoy learning the culture of the people where I travel and their home-cooked meals, more or less, than the restaurants — that’s what I enjoy. My wife and I went to Belize once and stayed on this little private island. We went scuba diving. We caught and speared our own fish; then we went on the beach with the two fishermen. We cooked it there and made ceviche from fresh conch, and we grilled the fish with a little lemon right there on the beach with some firewood. To me, that was like better than any restaurant experience I could ever have.
What do you look for in a restaurant?
The first thing I look for is the brand — the signage, the look, the face. I look at the outside. What’s their face? Their image? What are they portraying? Then I look at the menu and the size of the menu. From when I walk in the door, I look at what’s my first impression. Who’s the hostess? Who’s the manager? I look at their dress: Do their uniforms match the concept? Then I look at the comfort of the chairs, the seating, the bar. The lighting is very important. I tend to look at everything. I’m a Virgo so I’m very detail oriented, and I’m very into decorating and designing. I follow trends of restaurants. I really enjoy restaurants that are warmer — more earth tones and warmer lighting — than more contemporary. I don’t like really super-high ceilings. I don’t like really cold restaurants with tile floors and marble floors. I like wood.
What do you think makes a successful restaurant?
First of all, you have to have a great ambience with energy. What creates energy? Energy is the flow in a restaurant — how you see people, where the bar is, the personality of the staff. You have to have a great energy. You have to have a little music playing that goes with your theme. Then you have to execute on the food. You have to make sure the food matches the décor and concept. Then you have to have your customer service. You’ve got to make sure from the minute they walk in the door that you’re going to meet their demands, you’re going to be personal and outgoing — you’re feeding people. I feel food is love. It’s no different than your dining room table in your house with your family. That’s my vision, that’s what I look for when I go out and that’s what we do at Uncle Jack’s.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I was a bartender first. Basically I was a bouncer and doorman as a favor for my friend, and a lot of people came to visit me. The owner said, “Oh my God. Do you want to bartend here?” I had never bartended before, but I said I’d give it a shot. I cleaned up the bar — he had broken taps. He had a little grill at the end; I started getting his grill working. I fixed his beer tap. He was an older man that was basically disheartened and wasn’t into the business anymore. I was this new kid. I didn’t ask him; I just took assertiveness and started rebuilding his business because I knew if it was better for me, it made me more money. I made the place better right away by taking that initiative. Then I started liking the cooking and bartending, and wanted to open up my own place.
What do you love most about your job?
It’s a double-edged sword: What I love most about it is the people; but, in today’s world, to find the right workers and have people committed to what you’re doing is also very hard. You go through a lot of people to build the winning team. Anybody could build a restaurant, but to bring it to life, you need the people. That’s what I love the most about it. I just love people. I love characters. I love their stories. I love their parents. I love their trials and tribulations. But with that comes a lot of drama, as well.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
The most difficult part of my job today is when you’re trying to build stores and you’re trying to build, say Uncle Jack’s [Steakhouses], everywhere, to have that consistency, that philosophy and to be able to execute with different people, different managers and different personalities everywhere. That’s one of the toughest aspects — to keep that consistency. That’s an everyday fight you’ve got to stay on top of. Then you’ve got to manage your course today. Business is different. The restaurant business has been under attack. We employ a lot of people to make a little bit of money. We have to employ 60 or 75 people to run a nice size restaurant. We employ a lot of people; it’s a high expense.
What’s your next business move?
We’re going to do more Uncle Jack’s [Steakhouses]. We have the Jack’s Shacks; they’re organic, fast-casual eateries that we’re franchising. The next store I’m looking to do is an Uncle Jack’s Tavern. It’s in the middle. You have Jack’s Shack, which is fast casual and the price range is between $10 and $15 per person. Uncle Jack’s Tavern will be more or less $35 to $45 for a full dinner and $15 to $20 for lunch. We’ll have Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse as the high tier — much more fine dining, $100 per person — then we’ll have [Uncle] Jack’s Tavern and then Jack’s Shack. So I can almost feed every segment, everybody, everywhere. Right now, we’re in New York; but we’re going to branch out by doing joint ventures. I would love to work with some hotel companies, too, and get Uncle Jack’s Steakhouses in a high-end hotel and do joint ventures with them because they have such great operations already. I’m always worried about opening in other cities where I can’t control [the restaurants], so I would like to link up with a big hotel company, which has great operations as well. I have the brand, the product, the recipe for success. We join ventures; we build them together.
Photo Courtesy of Willie Degel