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Doing it Degel-style

 "I was told my whole life, I'll be a regular Joe, and I'll barely survive. When I had a dream, my own friends used to tell me, ‘It won't work, you can't do it, it will never happen.’ And I used to tell them, ‘Fuck you man, I'm making this shit happen. I'm doing it!’"

These are the words of Willie Degel, founder of the famed New York-based Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, Jack’s Shack Organic Eatery, and the soon to open, Uncle Jack’s Meat House.

The tenacity Degel showed in his youth followed him into adulthood, and it’s a good thing because Uncle Jack’s Meat House, the latest concept in his restaurant empire, has had its share of setbacks. Permitting, plumbing, and electrical issues have put the project $400,000 over budget and several months behind schedule. But perhaps that’s not unusual when you’re converting a 1950’s hardware store into a farm-to-table bar and grill done Degel-style.

While he admits that energy and drive come naturally to him, Degel says his family’s influence while he was growing up still impacts his success today. He credits his father with shaping his work ethic, his mother with influencing his self-confidence, and his brothers for their version of tough love.  

“Growing up, being the baby of four boys, if I went outside and got beat-up, my brothers beat me up again. I was a Degels’ boy, I’m not allowed to lose a fight,” he said in a thick New York accent distinctive to those born and raised in Queens.

His mother, a legal secretary, had a softer approach. She asked him, “If you don’t believe in yourself, who’s going to believe in you?” And while “never lie” and “don’t take drugs” were the edicts under which his father ran his home, the Korean war veteran drank every day.

“My father to me was super-dad. He was 6’2”, and a big strong man with calves the size of people’s heads. When he was a young kid he used deliver ice in Manhattan and carried blocks of ice up the stairs. He worked two jobs. Everything my father did was to support his four boys and my mother. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and came home at midnight. So, the work ethic was instilled because I saw what my dad would do for us,” said Degel.

As a young boy, Degel said his bicycle was his best friend. Maybe so, but what was for sure is that it served as his first company vehicle. When he delivered papers on his paper route, he also created signs for a local handyman’s business and stapled them to trees and telephone poles in a grid system he designed for maximum exposure. When the area competition caught on, they started covering over Degel’s signs with their own advertising. Not to be outdone, Degel and the handyman created plywood signs, hopped in a truck and nailed them up higher, about the same level as the traffic signals. The handyman was so impressed with Degel’s ingenuity, that he bought him a Moped so Degel go farther into area neighborhoods – and make the rounds faster.

“Everyone would notice that kid who was flying around on his Moped with a hammer putting up these signs. It was funny, but I met a lot of people and I made a lot of relationships,” Degel said.
Maximizing earnings was a business concept Degel also embraced in his youth. During winter, he’d shovel snow for his customers on his paper route. To him, it was more about the process – if he could perfect that, earnings would follow.

“From buying and selling cars, to delivering pizza in the neighborhood, every time I did it I wanted to engineer the process to be smarter, simpler, and wiser,” explained Degel, adding that he believes his German heritage instilled his engineering side, and that he designs things the “right way” without cutting corners.

When Degel was 29, he created the concept of Uncle Jack’s which he says is dedicated to his uncle, Jack Foley, a former boss of the longshoreman’s union.

“I’m a very visual learner, and I’m fearless. I was the one always willing to do whatever it took, try anything, if I fail – no big deal, I’ll figure it out on my own,” he said.

And figure it out he did. Three locations later – one in midtown Manhattan, Westside and Bayside Queens, Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse now answers to the cattle call of “the Best Steakhouse in New York City.”

degel 443x390Having built a name for himself and a brand in the restaurant industry, Degel was thrust into the national spotlight when he was cast as the host of “Restaurant Stakeout” on the Food Network, though he was leery about participating in a reality show.

“I live this drama every day. So, for me to go with some fake chef and him curse at me, and me smack him around just for ratings was not something I wanted to do,” he said.
But eventually, network execs and Degel agreed to a concept and the show debuted in 2012 and ran until 2014.

TV gave Degel a chance to share the lessons he learned the hard way at Uncle Jack’s.

“Today you’ve got to be adaptive as much as possible. You’ve got to hire smart, hire heart. For TV, you’ve got to be informative, you’ve got to be educating, you’ve got to have great discipline. You’ve got to be sure you bring the energy, the passion. When I wanted to do the show for the Food Network, it was all about teaching the viewership. They had a love for food already.

Everybody watched the network for food and chefs and said, wow! But I always felt that the passion for the business and how to run and operate it is more important than all of that,” Degel explained. “You’ve got to bring an entire team together in a concept and make it make money. There’s a lot of different parts, like teaching people how to departmentize and set up systems, along with salesmanship, quality, and simplifying. You know, I believe that’s an art form.”

After some 75 episodes, additional network projects, and other television ventures including one with life-success coach, Tony Robbins, Degel was burned-out and tired of the bureaucracy of network TV, so he bowed out and moved on.

His latest venture, Uncle Jack’s Meat House, opened its first location in Duluth, Georgia last year. The second location will welcome its first customers in May in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens after a lengthy development and construction process. The 6000-square-foot bar and grill features an organic farm-to-table menu, a basement speakeasy lounge with a secret door, and of course, Uncle Jack’s signature steaks. All totaled, Degel’s businesses employ over 250 people, a fact he finds humbling.

“As an employer, I take great pride in that I’m having these jobs created and helping people feed their family, meet their goals, and be a part of a winning team,” he said, adding that plans are to open more Jack’s Shacks – a casual dining restaurant.

Degel, who turns 50 this year, has decided to focus on helping aspiring entrepreneurs achieve the quintessential American dream. He hopes that by age 55, he can start working with budding business owners across the country.

“I want to work with people in finance to inspire some hungry hard-working Americans or immigrants that see an opportunity and want to own their own business,” he said. “I want to find myself with free time to inspire people, to teach and change their life, and give back as much as possible. That’s what I want to do.”

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