Willie Degel: The Fast-Talking Triple Threat
As the straight-talking host of Food Network’s Restaurant Stakeout, owner of a successful restaurant empire, luxury home developer and dedicated family man - Willie Degel is never living life in the slow lane. He’s a successful restaurateur and TV personality but the serial entrepreneur knows what it’s like to come from humble beginnings. Starting out as a paperboy, Willie worked his way up the success ladder and opened Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse and Jack’s Shack restaurants – and he runs a tight ship. His no-nonsense advice, coaching tips and recommendations on how to turn businesses around has made him a popular Food Network fixture. He believes in giving people a chance and for Willie, the customer is always king, but most of the time, he’s always right.
A Born Entrepreneur
Willie and his three older brothers grew up in Queens listening to stories about the great steakhouse and speakeasy Willie’s late godfather and great uncle owned in the 1920s. Willie loved doing the rounds to buy groceries for his family and learned to cook with his father. “He knew who had the best steak, sausage, or veal cutlets. He taught me how to prep well.” Determined to run his own business one day, he developed an entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. As a teen, he ran a paper route, but quickly realized he couldn’t make much money – so he started a neighborhood handyman business fixing anything and everything.
Later, when Willie’s father was diagnosed with cancer, he realized two things: “ Life’s too short to not have a plan to move up in the world. To do that, you need to learn from the best.” From there, Willie turned his handyman services into junior mechanic skills, and set his sights on raising some capital, and learning how to run a bar.
Learning from Experience
Willie applied his interest in design, people and hospitality and opened his first bar, Cocktails in Queens, with his older brother in October 1988. As a young 20 year old, he was eager to get ahead, and made some bad decisions outside of the bar. Soon after Willie’s father died he was charged with conspiracy to commit credit card fraud. He went to trial and served six months in federal prison. “I was terrified, shackled, and in a jumpsuit heading to prison. It was mind blowing.” When he got out, Willie realized no short cuts are worth taking and he was insistent on getting back on the right path.
Back on Track
He’d worked the grill behind his own bar, but Willie wanted to develop more comprehensive cooking skills. After his release from jail, in June 1990 he transformed his old bar Cocktails into a restaurant, Hollywood and Main, and hired a husband-and-wife team to help run the kitchen. “They taught me about teamwork, running the back end of a restaurant seamlessly, and the importance of surrounding yourself with people you can learn from.” He now knew how to run a bar, a kitchen, and staff which laid the groundwork for his next move, opening up the best steakhouse in New York.
Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, named in his great uncle and godfather’s honor, opened in 1996 to rave reviews and quickly developed a crowd filled with local sports stars, celebrities, and politicians. By 2003, he opened his second Uncle Jack’s. Patrons loved both the food and the steak sauces, so he launched Uncle Jack's Steak Sauce, BBQ Sauce, Sesame Teriyaki Sauce, and Lemon Grass Ginger Sauce. Seeing another gap in the market in 2010, he opened Jack’s Shack – a fast casual concept serving healthy, organic, locally-grown food. The restaurant is built out of recycled and reclaimed materials which Willie handpicked himself.
Now in its fourth season, Restaurant Stakeout allows Willie to share his learned-on-the-job knowledge with troubled restaurant owners. He takes them behind the scenes of their own establishments, via hidden cameras, showing them what their staff and patrons are really up to. He gives straight-shooting advice on building a team, collaboration, vision, and self-worth and uses their own strengths to build an empire.
Playing the Real Estate Game
Home building has always fascinated Willie. “I was looking for a new house for my family, and everything we were looking at was just not right. I found a place with an old foundation, I got an architect and a loan, and I built it from the ground up. I eventually sold that house to the director of One Life to Live. He said that I did all the things that no one else was doing.” Willie lives in Long Island with his wife of 20 years and three children. When he isn’t dedicating time to the restaurants or TV, he develops real estate and currently has projects in the Hamptons and Atlanta.
Always thinking about his next move, Willie has his eyes set to the future. “We’re looking to open an Uncle Jack’s in every big city. I’ve got The Jack’s Expansion map on my office wall.” And that’s just the start, merchandise, more TV shows, new restaurant concepts and more houses are on the cards. “I am a visionary and I’m building an empire here.”