Bayside steakhouse owner hits the road to stardom

Willie Degel points in the Firefly kitchen
Photo courtesy the Food Network
By Rich Bockmann

Bayside’s most avuncular steakhouse owner will be dishing out his particular brand of tough advice to restaurateurs across the country for a new television show.

Willie Degel, owner of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse on Bell Boulevard, is currently shooting a television show for the Food Network, “Restaurant Steak-out,” in which he helps restaurants that he said have almost everything going for them.

“I go into restaurants that basically have good chefs and good food, but bad consistency and guidelines and standards and strive to get to the next level,” he said one day last week after shooting. “It’s much more of a business story.”

Degel, who opened his Bayside steakhouse in 1996 and owns two others in Manhattan, said he begins his undercover look into poorly run eateries by setting up his “Willievision studio,” a system of hidden cameras and microphones that allow him to eavesdrop on the restaurant’s staff.

The problem with these restaurants, he said, is that owners are often either trying to cut corners or just do not know how to provide a top level of service.

“They’re trying to be managed by the owners, but the staff tends to run everything themselves. They need systems and rules and guidelines to be executed,” he said, adding that many owners today nickel-and-dime their customers in an ill-fated attempt to increase the bottom line.

“‘With this economy, what are you doing to get out there and retain them?’” he said is the most important question owners should ask themselves.

Degel said it was his focus on customer service that made his first restaurant a success.

“When I opened up 16 years ago, I had a vision to build a small, personalized place with high quality, and now that establishment has become an institution in Bayside,” he said. “Brooklyn has Peter Luger’s and Queens has Uncle Jack’s.”

His steakhouse runs a French-service team, with a captain to lead and accommodate the guest, a waiter and one busboy for every five diners.

“Numbers are everything. I employ more people per store to make sure every guest gets the best experience,” he said. “Until you experience it you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Degel said the key to running a successful restaurant is building a relationship with patrons, and to do that he offers membership rewards, a complimentary bottle of champagne on a diner’s birthday and a bottle of steak sauce for new customers.

Degel said the challenge of making his vision become a reality is what drives him to work so hard, and what he wants to instill in others.

“People are going to watch this show and think, ‘Wow, this guy’s extremely passionate. He’s a tough guy, no-nonsense, big-hearted and on a mission,’” he said.

In celebration of the March 14 premiere of the show at 10 p.m., Degel said all three of his restaurants will serve complementary hors d’oeuvres and feature an open bar. He plans to start celebrating at the two Manhattan locations and then make his way to Bell Boulevard.

“Bayside’s my baby,” he said. “It started everything.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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