Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the owner and founder of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, William Jack Degel. During our conversation, it was evident that Mr. Degel is extraordinarily passionate about his restaurants. When I sat down to enjoy a 10 ounce filet mignon, with the classic pairing of garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, I could taste his passion on the plate. Every single aspect of the restaurant, from the freshest ingredients to the ornate décor, is a direct product of this passion. That’s why Mr. Degel is an expert in his field. He knows that success can be found by putting your heart and soul into everything you do, whether you are cooking a steak or performing a stakeout!
Whether he is tweaking a recipe for a dry aged steak at Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse or assembling a Kobe Beef burger at Jack’s Shack, Mr. Degel knows good food. So I had to ask, are there any foods that he does not like to eat?
“I’m a foodie,” said Mr. Degel. “I love food. Certain foods just don’t work with me. I have a tough time with a lot of red sauces and I have a tough time with cream and dairy. But I like all foods. I like to try things. I’m not into frog legs, and exotic, crazy stuff like that, but I like all simple, comfort foods, Japanese food, and homemade foods from different cultures anywhere. The best thing I have ever eaten is hands down my mother’s German Style Pot Roast. She used to roast it long and slow.”
It seems like people are continuously searching for the perfect steak. Juicy, tender, full of flavor... So what does this steak expert consider to be the very best cut of steak?
“My personal favorite cut is a bone in, dry aged New York Strip, 2 inch to 3 inch thick cut,” Mr. Degel explained. “I love the flavor of the bone and you can dry age it because it has the bone and fat count. I love the texture of it. It has more texture. You have to chew it a little bit and while you’re chewing it, each bite is unique and different. It’s just a different piece of meat. It’s not the most tender piece, but I feel it has the most flavor, yet it’s tender as well.”
Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of dining in one of Mr. Degel’s restaurants, you have probably seen him help struggling restaurants on the hit Food Network television show, Restaurant Stakeout. But is it truly as easy as it looks? Mr. Degel said that it’s virtually impossible to turn around a failing restaurant in such a short span of time.
“A lot of them, the minute I’m gone, they go back to their ways. It’s like a diet,” said Mr. Degel. “They’re cheating, they’re cutting corners, they’re distracted, they’re not involved, they’re lazy, and they’re not committed. After a week or two, they’re going back to their old ways.”
Of course, for many restaurant owners, Mr. Degel holds the key to their success, imparting wisdom and advice that makes a lasting difference in their businesses and even in their lives. Having completed over 55 episodes, I asked Mr. Degel to tell me if he had a special memory relating to the show and the people he has helped along the way.
“Every one of them is special,” said Mr. Degel. “Some of the restaurants I did, you can tell during a show I didn’t get along with the owners. I wasn’t on the same page, I didn’t like their philosophy, I didn’t like how they treated their workers, I didn’t like their excuses, but I gave them everything I had. And then there are those few owners that embraced me so much that they connected to me and are doing everything they can to revive their business. They look at everything I said, they took it, and they challenged themselves. I can’t point out one because I wouldn’t want to do that because everybody’s different and unique in their own sense. Each season, I have 13 episodes, so there’s about 3-4 every season that are my favorites.”
Many people first learn about Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse as a result of viewing Restaurant Stakeout. I asked Mr. Degel to tell me how the show has impacted the number of customers he sees at his restaurants.
“We’ve definitely seen some increase,” replied Mr. Degel. “We have people come in and they’re positive and they love it. Then we have people just trying to come in and see if Willie is really that good, if he lives up to his name. No matter what, we’re there, doing everything we can. The employees have a lot of pressure, and they do a great job. If we’re not right, and somebody doesn’t have the great experience they expect, we make it right.”
“The way we cook fresh every day,” Mr. Degel said as he described his commitment to quality. “We run a lunch show and a dinner show. We make everything from scratch. I’m picky, I’m a Virgo, I’m a control person; we go over everything. Our recipes, our guidelines, how we dry age the beef, how we treat the staff, how we hand pick the marble. Everyone’s so committed, they’re giving you proper service, and they’re giving you their heart and soul. I don’t hire people based on what is on their resume. I hire them based on their God-given talent. I look for a cast of characters. Building that team and keeping people motivated and holding them accountable. Making sure they love what they do, day in and day out, so we can perform the show and make sure the customer has the best experience of their life. I love a cast of characters, so interacting with my customers and my team is what I love about being in my restaurants.”
In speaking with Mr. Degel, it is evident that he enjoys his job. He is not afraid of hard work and he knows that everything he does is worth the effort.
“I love people,” Mr. Degel said. “So many people go into business, thinking it’s glorious, it’s easy, and just open up to provide jobs. It’s not that easy. I can say it’s one of the toughest businesses. You have to have a lot of people work for you to make minimal money. Today it’s under more pressure than ever. You’re being attacked by big corporations. If you’re not ready for this business and you’re not committed, then you don’t understand that you’re going to have to dig in and live there. It’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle. Don’t waste your money and time and stay working for somebody else.”
The motto of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse is “The Customer Is King.” So what does this signify? Mr. Degel said it was to let the customer know what their commitment was and that the staff must meet his high expectations to give the customer the best experience possible. “We’ll strive for perfection, we’ll learn, we’ll get better every day, and we’ll never stop,” Mr. Degel elaborated. “The customers will sense that, they’ll appreciate that because we’re all human. We can have all the technology in the world around us, but interacting with humans and feeding and cooking for them in the restaurant is no different than them eating at your table at home.”
One of the questions I asked Mr. Degel was to describe the most unique place he has ever enjoyed a meal. He described a delightful trip he took with his wife to Central America: “I went on vacation with my wife to Belize and we went on a fishing excursion. I went down snorkeling and had little spear guns. I speared a couple of fish and we got some conchs and then we pulled up on the beach and we set up a little fire in the sand. We had conch with just a little bit of vinegar and seasonings and then we grilled the fish on the beach. Belize was really cool. It was a real romantic trip for me and my wife.”
As a family man, Mr. Degel also enjoys taking vacations with his entire family. They have traveled to the Four Seasons in Mexico, Aruba, Jamaica, and other exotic locations. He added, “We go to Vermont skiing and just enjoy being with other families, other kids, everybody cooking in the kitchen, a collaborated effort.”
Even with his busy schedule, Mr. Degel realizes the importance of family. “My family is my foundation,” he stated. “They know what I do. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a businessman, and I’m a visionary. I’m very driven, so they understand that and they’re committed to it and they make it pretty much easy for me but I divide my time very well. I’m sure my wife wants more of me all of the time, but she understands the commitment and the responsibility that I have. Even though I’m constantly thinking of the next big thing, you have to learn to turn it off and just slow down. I’m only human, even Willie has his kryptonite.”
Mr. Degel’s drive and determination are what make him a successful entrepreneur, restaurateur, husband, and father. But he is certainly up to the task. In fact, he is even looking to take the Uncle Jack’s concept beyond the Big Apple.
“We’re looking to open more Uncle Jack’s Steakhouses in every big city in the United States,” said Mr. Degel, “but I want to collaborate an effort with other restaurants that might be in these cities. We do joint ventures like a franchise and they’ll open with me and we’ll collaborate together.”
With all of his accomplishments, Mr. Degel continues to strive to better himself and his business. He said, “I come from a lower mid-class family in Queens and I never had anything handed to me. I had to believe in myself. It doesn’t matter if everyone else believes in you; you need to believe in yourself. I’ve established myself and built my empire up, but the pressure is on. What am I going to do next? It’s all about working smarter, not harder.”
Mr. Degel also feels that everyone should be working and making whatever contribution they can to society. “I'm a Republican. I’m really not happy the way the country’s being run today,” said Mr. Degel. “I’m not happy with our leadership, and I’m not happy with the frame of mind of people. I believe everybody should be working. I don’t believe everybody should just get everything for free and get it handed to them. I believe our government is controlled by just giving things out. I believe everybody in some aspect can have some type of responsibility. If they can’t walk, they can think. There are so many challenging people that aspire to great things and I see so many people whining and crying and milking our system. It makes me sick and I just feel that everybody, no matter what happens in their life, has to take this switch of negativity and look within themselves and say, what can I do today? What can I do to feel better about myself by accomplishing something that I’m good at?”
Mr. Degel is a great role model for other restaurateurs to follow. He knows what he has been blessed with and he is more than willing to share his knowledge with others. And it is evident that he loves what he does every day. Toward the end of the interview, Mr. Degel said, “I help everybody I know, every way I can, in any business, and even in their way of life. I feel the philosophy I have can affect anybody’s business and personal life. I’m no different. I’m not better than anybody. God gave me talent. I’ve been able to cultivate it to see what I’m good at, challenge myself, and I love being positive, believing in people, and showing what it takes, the commitment, the dedication, the passion, making sure anything you start you finish, and having fortitude. Never quit, never stop, and love what you do every day.”
Visit unclejacks.com for more information on Mr. Degel, Uncle Jack's Steakhouse, Jack's Shack, or to make reservations at one of his restaurants. Go to foodnetwork.com for more information concerning the television show Restaurant Stakeout. And be sure to read my review of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse at www.jennifersjourneys.net.
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