1. He’s a born hustler.
Inspired by hard working Irish-German parents, both working multiple jobs to support a family of six, Degel took up multiple business ventures at an early age. Whether delivering newspapers or buying and selling old cars, Degel always found some kind of project and learned that he excelled most when he was his own boss. His hard work even helped fund half of his and his three brothers' tuition at the parochial school his devout Catholic mother insisted they attend. Even today, he credits his late father for his entire work ethic and the courage to take risks.
2. It took personality too.
At the age of 19, Degel's friend asked him along for a job working the door at a pub in Queens. When Willie's magnetic personality drew in a crowd, the owner offered him a job as a bartender. Excelling in this position motivated him to open his own place a year later, along with his brother. This successful venture would eventually lead to the creation of Uncle Jack's, the steakhouse that put Degel on the culinary map.
3. He’s a convicted criminal.
After his father passed away, Degel’s grief collided with his desire for success, and he found himself involved in criminal activity. Degel attempted to take a shortcut, and in 1993 he was convicted for taking part in a credit-card fraud ring. Although sentenced to five years in prison, he was served only six months by agreeing to cooperate with the authorities by testifying against his partners in crime.
4. There really is an Uncle Jack.
Curious about the name of the famous steakhouse chain? Growing up, Degel was enchanted by stories of his godfather Jack and his 1920's Manhattan speakeasy and steakhouse, Jack's. The prominent venue held a rich history, devoted to bringing great service and luxury to everyone, not just celebrities and the wealthy. When Degel was ready to open his own place, tales of his godfather's establishment inspired him to recreate the luxury and panache of Jack's. To this day he maintains the mantra "In Jack's, we trust" as a reminder and an homage to Jack's values of ambiance, service, quality food and respect for every customer.
5. Finding the perfect sauce was another way of hustling.
Wanting a high-quality dining experience but unhappy with established steak sauces, Degel developed his own line of three sauces using the freshest all-natural ingredients available. As the steakhouse’s notoriety grew, so did the demand for a taste of its sauces, prompting the creation of a retail and mail-order business. Nowadays, anyone can purchase Uncle Jack's Steakhouse sauce collection online, in his restaurants and in more than 3,000 gourmet shops and supermarkets.
6. He knows his way around steer.
Growing up, Degel learned how to properly care for a steer and what a healthy steer should look like. So he now works directly with farms to get the best beef—and the best deal—by taking the middle man out and getting as close as possible to breeding his own steers. In particular, he likes to know where his steers are, how they're fed and how they are being cared for.
7. He was ahead of the curve on kobe beef.
Degel claims to be the first restaurateur to bring Kobe beef to New York City in the late nineties. To do so, he had to buy half a steer at a time, from animals raised in rice fields to create “all that intramuscular fat that makes it taste so good.”
8. He walked away from an earlier version of Restaurant Stakeout.
Degel’s reality TV career started when he was approached to do a show featuring a tough boss. When everything was good to go, they started on a program for Biography called You're High Maintenance, which led to a phone call from producer Tom Forman. He loved Degel's big personality and offered him a show on truTV. Degel, on the other hand, didn't like the direction the network wanted to go in, and decided to walk away. The duo later approached the Food Network and proposed a show where Degel could go beyond just cooking, instead educating restaurant owners about the business side. And so Restaurant Stakeout was born.
9. He paid former servers $900,000 settlement in a wages lawsuit.
A lawsuit filed in 2008 by captains, waiters, runners, bussers, and bartenders alleged that Uncle Jack’s failed to pay them the legally required minimum wage, shaved their hours to avoid overtime pay and misappropriated gratuities belonging to the waitstaff. Degel settled the case in 2014 for $900,000.
10. He honors celebrities, but not with 8x10s.
Uncle Jack's keeps framed napkins, autographed by famous clientele—Paris Hilton, Dwayne Wade, Dan Marino, Shaquille O’Neal, Halle Berry, Adam Sandler and Donald Trump—on its walls. More importantly, Degel says that each location’s most loyal customers are the people who live in the neighborhood. Seems like he’s upholding that standard of great service and luxury for everyone, not just celebrities and the wealthy.