Founder and CEO of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouses in New York City & Host of Restaurant Stakeout on The Food Network
Owner of Uncle Jack’s Steak House, this thriving, hard-driving business manager, and sometime chef, loves his life, and though Willie Degel never stops thinking about it, not even for a minute, he’s proud that he can claim one of New York’s most popular steak house chains as his very own.
So, how did you get started in the restaurant world?
I was always an entrepreneur. Even as a young kid, I was a businessman. I had a newspaper route, bought and sold cars, had a lemonade stand, did whatever it took to make money. I always saw life as an opportunity, see people as honest. I see movement, the big picture, I’m always ahead of my curves, and I sometimes don’t have patience for everybody to catch up. I always wanted to be a boss. Every time I worked for someone else, I cared more than the owner himself. I took great pride in what I did. My father worked two jobs, and he instilled that in me. A couple of weeks ago I was closing a restaurant and told the two owners, I care more than you do. It affects me. I took it home with me.
What was your first job?
A buddy and I used to work out together, and he asked me to work for him for three weeks. He was working the door at a pub on Northern Boulevard in Queens, and I invited people to come see me. I packed the place. The owner called me up, you want to come bar tend? That’s how it all started. I was 19. A year later, I found a place in my neighborhood, a biker bar going out of business. I talked to my brother; do you want to do this? I got a cook, a grill; we’ll make a kitchen, let’s do it. Any money we had saved, we used. My parents always made my aunts and uncles, grandparents, give us bonds.
We didn’t get a lot of presents! My father was a big saver. He taught us at a young age to save money. He made us do passbook loans, where you take your own money and then the bank would lend you money against your money. He would take our money and buy CDs. He’d have $5000 and say, I’ll buy you CDs. Take a passbook loan from the bank, a low-interest loan, collateralize it with your money, and you’re going to buy more CDs with that. Your money now is doubled. He used to teach us how to have a goal, to work hard for things, and things will happen for you.
It’s funny. I was on a blind date, a double date, watching a movie with Tom Cruise flipping bottles, and my buddy said, you should do this, you have such a big personality, you’d be great at it. A few weeks later, when the guy asked me to work the door for him, it all came together.
Do you think it was luck?
Luck is great but I believe in karma. If you don’t believe in God, you better believe in karma. Coming from a lower middle-class family I didn’t feel I deserved any of this, didn’t feel like I belonged here. After my first successful restaurant, I had to question myself, and be in that moment by myself. Is this true, is this really happening? Do I really deserve this? Am I living my dream? You don’t have a college degree, you can’t do this, was what I heard. I’ve always been the guy who wants to go, and had a million people pulling me back.
How did you get the restaurants rolling out?
Uncle Jack’s, my first place, was on Main Street. My brother and I were together for years but fought a lot. I was always what I call “progressing” the store, changing things, maximizing profit, and that stressed him out. He wanted it just to be a pub and to run itself. I said, I’m going to run it like a bank, like a machine. You’ve got to run it new and take care of existing customers, too. I found this location, and opened Uncle Jack’s in Bayside. I wanted to elevate it. I enjoyed cooking, I wanted to make it a smaller place, but I had a customer who just got a lot of money from an insurance settlement and he wanted to invest in me and make it a bigger place.
What happened next?
You know, you have a particular taste. Who your taste is who you are. Some people have crappy taste, some good. I saw my taste in what I liked, people with class and money, who liked the finer things, and they tended to gravitate around what I was doing. I analyzed that. I studied what my father was good at, what my mother was good at, what traits I got from the Irish, my passion, my fight, and what from the Germans, the engineering side. I always had a plan, could see things five, 10 years down the road. I couldn’t do anything part-time. Just get it done, it’ll be fine. That just doesn’t exist in me.
That’s why I started Uncle Jack’s. I wanted to design a place where people who liked the finer things in life, and got catered to and serviced, would go. I started it small, built a loyal following. I socialized with nothing but lawyers and business people and entrepreneurs and politicians and union leaders and that’s what filled the place, I catered to them and they networked and I networked and I branched out from there.
What led you to Manhattan?
A gentleman was doing a big development in Bayside, and he wanted me to take this big store and I was going to do an Asian fusion restaurant before anyone else. The brother of Mark Green, the former NYC public advocate, was buying this building on Ninth Ave, and 34th Street and was looking for a restaurateur so I went to look at it. I saw the location. I saw the Jacob Javits Center, I saw Madison Square Garden, but back then 12 years ago, 34th Street was all heroin addicts, methadone clinics, it was the armpit of Manhattan. And I thought, I could build something here and they worked with me. It was an old garment building and they were going to commercialize it. They needed somewhere for people to go for a nice lunch. They had a vision for the building. There was no restaurant in the area. I said, we could do a business here. If we could build it and cater to every guest like in Bayside, it will grow and grow and grow, and now it’s our biggest store.
What’s the biggest difference between Bayside and Manhattan?
Every location, every restaurant you’re going to open up – hey, anyone can build and interior decorate and design and spend money. What makes the restaurant come to life is your staff, your leadership philosophy, the people you choose to work in every position. Are they on the team, are they all doing what it takes to have customers have their best experience? They have to get on the personal level, know what everyone wants to drink, what table, go above and beyond. That’s what takes the restaurant and gives it a personality. Then the customers know what is your make-up, that’s your DNA now. Each store has different-style customers. In Bayside we do a lunch but not a huge lunch.
Everyone closing a deal in Queens comes here. Dinner is people who live here, who bed down in these neighborhoods, drive 10, 15 minutes. But it’s also people who lived here and moved away and they’re little incubators for you, in their new area. They’re promoting your brand and then they take the trips back. You have your nucleus, your people who are going to come and come. Then the restaurant can regress to the basics.
You’re one of the few restaurateurs who work directly with farms to get your food. Tell me about that.
I don’t need middle people. I’m the brand. I want to go direct. I want to breed my own steers. The advantage is, I have a direct relationship with the people raising the steers. I grew up in Pennsylvania, my father had cows and chickens. We had a chicken coop at our summer home. That’s where it comes from. I want to know where my steers are, where they’re fed, how they’re taken care of. I know what a steer should look like. I was the first person bringing Kobe beef into New York 18 years ago. No one knew what it was. I got a five-star diamond award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences because the guy couldn’t believe I was selling $275 beef here in Bayside. We did 15 a week. I had to buy half the steer. That steer was raised from the rice fields. The steer had so much muscle, it had to come through all that mud, training, running through mud, standing in quicksand, which creates all that intramuscular fat that makes it taste so good. Breeding matters.
Why do you take all that care?
People buy from anybody and everybody, going to look to get their profit. That’s not what we’re going to do. I develop a relationship, stick with that relationship. I want to know everything. Today you have to be smarter, informed. You need to know where your chickens come from, how your turkeys are raised.
How is the business so different today?
It’s much more expensive in NY than ever before, for one thing. The regulations, the new laws, we’re over-regulated. Take the Health Department, the restaurant ratings. It’s becoming a fee-based business like parking meters, a revenue stream.
Once you have the restaurant, you need the equipment.
When I built my Bayside store, I was rubbing nickels together, I went down to the Bowery and I bought an old Garland broiler, 1800 degrees infrared broiler. It’s a tank; the stainless steel on it is a half-inch thick. This thing does not break down. It’s like an old furnace that will last forever. You come into the kitchen, and there’s this big fiery thing that’s saying “feed me steak, feed me steak.” I bought the new Garland, and at 56th Street I have Jade.