William “Willie” Degel, owner of New York’s Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse chain and Jack’s Shack all-natural eatery — and star of the new Food Network series Restaurant Stakeout — developed his entrepreneurial spirit at an early age, working multiple odd jobs to help fund the parochial school education his parents demanded for their sons.
“I was the baby of four boys and my parents wanted us to get a good education,” Degel says. “My father worked two jobs and my mother had to work for us to go to Catholic school and get a good education. We had to pay at least half of our school. So it all started there.”
While his brothers headed off to college after high school, Degel knew that higher education of the classroom sort was not for him. He continued to hone his natural knack for business — and pad his bank account — via whatever opportunity arose, and accepted the occasional failure as part of the deal. In fact, it was failure that helped Degel form the iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove business acumen that set him apart from other business owners — and eventually made him famous. Reeling from his father’s death when he was just 20, Degel attempted what he calls “a shortcut” to success and found himself behind bars for a few months instead. He realized that the only path to prosperity is gutting it out — and how to see people as much more than the sum of their mistakes.
“Basically, I got off track,” Degel explains. “But that was one of the best experiences that could’ve ever happened to me because it’s just you yourself sitting there in your cell and you’re thinking about God and your father and it’s an awakening. It’s like, ‘What did I do and how did I get here?!’ You have to look inside yourself and that’s a big thing.”
With that in mind, Degel hires people who impress him with potential rather than a loaded resume. “I see everybody as an artist,” he explains. “God has given us all talents, but a lot of people don’t know how to work with that. I evaluate everybody and see what you’re good at, put you in that position and let you flourish — even if I might have to smack you in the butt a few times to put you in the right direction.”
Via Stakeout, Degel hopes to teach other restaurant owners that talent. After casing each eatery incognito, Degel uses hidden cameras to show the head honchos where they need his help. Degel believes the outcome is worth it for everyone involved — including viewers. “I think they’re going to so intrigued by how much they learn,” he says. “The way I run my restaurants is an education process — and I want this show to be an education process, too.”
CGM: It sounds like you are finally taking the restaurant-makeover program to where even some of the most immaculately kept establishments need an overhaul — their human resources. How did the show come to be?
WD: These two gentlemen who found me for a show, they put an ad on Craig’s List for a tough boss. And supposedly I came up, like, three times. Most people came up once, but I came up twice or three times [laughs]. So they called me and I didn’t know who they were, so I wanted to do a background check on them. They said I was even tough on them!
So we did a show for Biography called You’re High Maintenance and from that show, Tom Forman — who is a big-time producer — called them and said, “Who’s that guy? I want that talent!” So we started doing a show for truTV. But what truTV wanted for a show — it just wasn’t right for me. Tru had their idea for a show and once I started shooting the pilot, I thought, “I’m not enjoying this. This is not what Willie does everyday. I do not need a TV show; I can build more businesses. I’m happy.” Money doesn’t make people happy. It enhances your life, but creating and having good things happen every day is what makes me happy. So I walked away from tru.
Me and me and Tom were talking and I said, “I want to show that’s going to be positive. There’s going to be drama in a show because there’s going to be drama with people in the restaurant/bar business. There’s drama with people. But I don’t want to be the drama. I want to be able to do what I do and help people.
So when we met with Food Network, I said, “You have a great channel, I love your channel, and you do a lot to teach people about cooking. But no one is really teaching anyone — really speaking to them — about the business end. How about the front of the house? How about the service? How do you really rally your team and keep them focused? How do you be their mentor and also be their disciplinarian and have them respect you, but love you and want to do this every day? So many people go into the restaurant business and go out of business — 95% of them fail. So this is your network — let’s not just make this only about the food, let’s also let this be about the restaurant, the entertainment, the bar, the food, the business aspect. Let’s change this channel!”
CGM: How did you choose the establishments you will feature in the episodes?
WD: We wanted to go to average places that people can relate to — people struggling with one, two, three locations and going through growth stages. A lot of them have great chefs and great food, but what are the issues with the rest of the place? How do you maximize on that?
CGM: Were you working in conjunction with the restaurant owners in getting your surveillance tools into place, or was the whole thing a surprise to them?
WD: Basically what I do is I go to the locations early without telling them and I surveil the place and I eat various items off the menu and I check the cleanliness and the organization of the place, A-Z — their service, their marketing, you name it. And then I’ll call the owner and tell them this is what I saw and that I need the keys to the place, and then we’ll set up a “Willie-vision-cam” and I’ll show the owners what we can see.
I pick key areas of the restaurant — and with my 25 years of experience, I know where to put these cameras and microphones so we can identify key issues and work on them. And right away, the owners come in and they’re like, “Wow!”
But then they point out things to me, as well, and we get to know about the owner. That’s another thing I want to the public to know — who this owner really is. How did he get here? What made him make this choice? Why is he in this business? How’s it affecting his family and his life. And then we talk about the staff members, who they are and why they were hired?
CGM: When did you realize you had something to offer to the business community — and the average Joe — beyond running your restaurants?
WD: I have these “Willie-isms.” I put them in simple layman terms and one of my favorite Willie-isms is “I’m successful from giving.” People go, “Well, OK, what is that? Like an Oprah scenario?” And I’m like, “No. I give it all I got, I never give up and I give back every chance I have.”
So what does that mean? Even when I employ people, I don’t employ people like a Fortune 500 company and judge you by your resume. I don’t judge you by the mistakes you made in your life. I look at you and say, “Where are you now? What is your plan? What are you good at? Do you want to work together with me? It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be hard. But together we can succeed at something. Together, and with the rest of my team, we can be winners.”
I give a lot of people opportunities and sometimes it comes back to haunt me and sometimes it works out. A lot of time it does come back to haunt you because people fire themselves; I’m not firing them. I’m always looking to build around people. I can look at anyone and see their God-given talent, and automatically the entrepreneurial spirit in me is like, “Let’s structure a business and let’s see what we can do.”
CGM: Does your brain ever stop humming?
WD: I have to stop myself a lot, because my wife will be like, “What do you want to do that for?!” And I’m like, “I just can’t help it!”
As the team leader of my company, I tend to evaluate everybody in my company and see what you’re good at and put you in that position and let you flourish and build your confidence. It’s going to be a struggle. It’s going to be a hard work. It’s going to have turmoil and ups and downs — because a lot of times they want to take a short cut. They want the easy way. They want to path of least resistance. But that’s not going to get you to the pot of gold. You have to invite the challenges. You have to invite the lows and know that out of those lows you’re going to reach great highs.
Even with this TV show — you know I didn’t go to school to be an actor, so what am I doing with a TV show?! Yeah, I’m scared. I’m nervous about it. You know, “Am I going to be successful?” But I’m going to work as hard as I can and put everything that I have into it and if I fail that way, I can live with it. Because to me, it’s not failure then.
And I really attribute that to confidence and my sense that, “Hey, if anyone else can do it, so can I. Why don’t I try?” So that’s the big difference. And I have simple formula for that. My wife and my children — they’re my foundation. What does that mean? That’s the foundation of my house. You gotta build it out of cement, right? You want it to weather any storm. They’re my granite. They’re what I come home to and we feed off each other’s energy. We’re all positive. You cultivate that positive thinking.
New episodes of Restaurant Stakeout air Wednesdays at 10pm on Food Network.