William "Jack" Degel, owner of New York’s Uncle Jack's Steakhouse chain and Jack's Shack all-natural eatery — and star of the new Food Network series Restaurant Stakeout — developed his entrepreneurial spirit at an early age by working to help fund the parochial school education his parents demanded of their sons. As the youngest of four boys, Willie learned at a young age the importance of hard work and the value of taking risks.
In his early twenties, Willie began working as a bartender. His charismatic personality was perfect for such a role. So when the opportunity arose for him to open a bar, a shuttered Flushing, Queens, saloon, he took the chance and partnered with his brother and opened his own establishment, Cocktails. The bar was a big success and ultimately became the platform that catapulted his dream of opening an "Uncle Jack's" into a reality.
Willie grew up enlivened by tales of the steakhouse and speakeasy his late godfather owned in the 1920s, known as Jack's. Willie's dream was to re-create the traditional ambiance and flair of this well-known celebrity and socialite mainstay that was once a prominent restaurant located on the West Side of Manhattan.
His dream came to fruition 18 years ago with his first Uncle Jack's. He personally designed the restaurant's interior and the menu reflecting his fervent, spirited style. He produced a beautiful 1890s prohibition-style Victorian saloon in Bayside, N.Y., with hand-carved mahogany bar and walls, copper pressed ceilings and Old World charm. He elevated the restaurant's service to a five-star standard and instilled the motto "Customer is king."
His new concept required every cent he earned and saved, and then some. His personal sacrifice and hard work paid off and was an instant success. Everyone from Rudy Giuliani to sports stars and celebrities had to "get a taste" of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse. Customer demand prompted a retail and mail-order business of homemade family recipes that launched the Uncle Jack's Steakhouse sauce collection (Steak Sauce, Hickory Wood BBQ and Sesame Soy Teriyaki ) sold in his restaurants, gourmet shops and many supermarkets.
Over the next few years, he built two more Uncle Jack's locations in Manhattan. The first establishment located on 9th Ave, in Hell's kitchen, was thought to be a dead zone. Willie saw it as a location that held great potential and he felt that the area would begin to thrive again. Once he opened his doors, regular visits from Manhattanites, international tourists, executives, sports fans going to Madison Square Garden and celebrities started to frequent Uncle Jack's.
With two Uncle Jack's thriving, it wouldn't be long before he opened his third location in Midtown. A step away from the fashion and theater district, this beautiful location sits in the midst of Times Square, the hub of New York City.
As the Uncle Jack's name grew, so did Willie's popularity. He was nominated for the Ernst & Young award and featured in Crain's "Forty under Forty" as one of New York's rising stars.
His latest endeavor is the all-natural eatery he opened in his neighborhood called Jack's Shack. The concept was to provide a nutritious, delicious and fast way to grab a bite to eat by creating a menu that was unique and versatile. The food served uses natural, organic ingredients that can be enjoyed by anyone who wants a healthy meal. Customers experience the ambiance, the music, the aromas and a vibe like no other. Willie personally helped build the space using recycled materials, such as old reclaimed barn wood from Kansas, to create more than a restaurant — it's a laid-back lifestyle that Mother Earth would be proud of.
A proud and devoted father and a self-proclaimed family man, Willie takes time each day to spend with his wife and three children. It is the support and love of his family that inspires him each day. They are the foundation that he builds upon. Fans can keep up with Willie on Twitter @WillieDegel.