“Customer is King.”
Many in the restaurant industry talk the talk and espouse this view of restaurant management. Willie Degel walks the walk and takes it more than a few steps farther by including the mantra as part of his restaurant décor, setting the tone and greeting each guest as they enter.
“We are an elegant high-end classic New York steakhouse restaurant,” the founder and CEO of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, Meat House, Steak Sandwich Shop and Jack’s Shack, tells Modern Restaurant Management magazine. “It’s not complicated or trendy. It’s very simple and I’m old school. I believe in top-quality service and top-quality food.”
Best known for hosting Restaurant Stakeout on the Food Network, Degel, who started out as a bartender, boasts more than 30 years in the restaurant business. He is a self-taught chef, foodie and motivational expert. On television, he used this accumulation of acumen to help restaurants make a turn around by determining their strengths and weaknesses.
“I have the ability to read peoples’ talents and I like people and know what makes a team work,” he said. “To them, freedom is a prize—I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. You have to set your team up for success.”
Being self-taught and motivated, Degel felt the pull to help others.
“I was always different. I wasn’t a great reader, more of a hands-on learner and I love to create. But I am also an organizer and like to take charge. It’s important for me to share what I know because nobody told me.”
Degel took a break from television to focus on his growing the Uncle Jack’s brand which has now expanded to five distinct concepts:
- Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse – with three New York City locations in Midtown, Bayside and on the West Side
- Jack’s Shack – located in Glen Head, NY
- Uncle Jack’s Steak Sandwich Shop – located in Madison Square Garden
- Uncle Jack’s Meat House – located in Duluth, GA and Astoria, NY, opening in the fall; and
- Uncle Jack’s Tavern concept
He also developed a line of sauces – Uncle Jack’s Steak Sauce, BBQ Sauce, Sesame Teriyaki Sauce and Lemon Grass Ginger Sauce.
Degel says the company is franchised and ready to grow with plans to open seven additional locations over the next two years and go public.
“I’ve grown a company. I don’t think I’m better than anyone, but I work harder. I have insecurity about going national and growing, but I’m going to do it the best way possible. I’m fearless, not scared of failure.”
Now as his daughter graduated from college and joins him in the family business, Degel finds himself offering motivational advice to her about following your own passions.
“It’s cool to run a restaurant,” he said. “Everyone wants to be in it, but this is a hard-nosed business with so much going on behind the scenes to do that can pull you away from it. You always have to be fine tuning, challenging and inspiring.”
Possibly one of the best lessons he gave her was being honest and facing his fears when Restaurant Stakeout began.
“I was scared and vulnerable, but I was still going to do it. Every day is a new show.”