Whether it is birth order or genetics, Willie Degel, the youngest of four brothers from an Irish-German Catholic family in Flushing, Queens, was born gumptious. Degel, the owner of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouses (West Side, Midtown and Bayside, Queens) and Jack’s Shack Organic Eatery in Glen Head, host of Food Network’s Restaurant Stakeout and co-host of the cable network’s latest series, Food Fortunes, is an unflappable, can-do entrepreneur who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. “If you’re my friend, I’d die for you. That’s who I am,” he says. “You work with me, you’re on my team, I’ll do everything I possibly can for you. If you’re not on my team, it’s like you’re Fredo to me. I take business very personally.”
Inspired by Tom Cruise’s behind-the-bar hustling in the 1988 film Cocktail, Degel opened his first brick and mortar business, a bar named Cocktails, in his early 20s. Several years later, the first Uncle Jack’s, in Bayside, opened followed by his Manhattan locations. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, the vision of working for myself, being a boss, being a mentor, being a leader, but also being a driver,” he says. “I was never scared of driving others, telling people what to do, why to do it, giving them leadership and direction. I give tough love and reward with love.”
It was only a matter of time until this bigger-than-life business impresario found himself on the small screen. As host of Restaurant Stakeout, Degel’s mission was to help, inspire and ultimately turn around struggling restaurants following his three commandments of business: structure, discipline and execution. This past year, when Food Network launched Food Fortunes (think Shark Tank for food entrepreneurs), Degel, as a potential investor (shark) was an obvious fit. “I believe there is something special in this show,” he says. “I have invested in almost six deals already. I get involved, help with distribution and protect them, because I understand what the weasels of the world look like.”
Degel, who is incapable of resting on his laurels, opened Jack’s Shack Organic Eatery a few years back near his Long Island home. Colorful and funky, all natural and organic, Jack’s Shack “has great legs,” he says. “This is not McDonald’s or Wendy’s. You will not find mystery meat or cheese here. We are going back to our grassroots, how it was. Everything is labeled so you know where your food comes from.” Degel looks toward expanding Jack’s Shack across the island: “Fifteen hundred square feet is the perfect size, you know in Port Washington, Huntington, Patchogue, etcetera.”
If you spot some real estate, drop him a line. Weasels, don’t bother.