Willie Degel is the tough-talking Flushing native who hosts Food Network's "Restaurant Stakeout," premiering tomorrow. Degel - who speaks proudly of his New York City roots (with a strong NYC accent) - owns four restaurants, including Uncle Jack's Steakhouse near Penn Station.
Degel plans to open another location of Uncle Jack's on the Upper East Side this year, and he will bring another version of his casual gourmet eatery, Jack's Shack, to Manhattan too.
But before that, he's gearing up for his national TV premiere, which he admits he's "a little nervous about."
Using surveillance cameras, Degel and his team spy on restaurateurs. He then counsels owners and their staff on how to fix business problems, something he sees almost as his calling.
amNewYork spoke with Degel about the series.
How would you describe your show? It's about going into restaurants and surmising what people are doing wrong. Business is tough - it's a grind. You need discipline, systems and guidelines. I want to motivate people to create a game plan and stick to it.
What were some of the biggest surprises you came across while filming? A lot of them have the same repetitive patterns: There are owners that are sweethearts and staffs that don't want discipline - and they're floundering their potential.
How would you describe your strategy for fixing restaurants? More than anything, you need consistency if you're going to develop a loyal customer base. As an owner, you need to lay down the law and stick to your guns. You have to be a leader, not everyone's best friend. ... A lot of times, owners are nickel-and-diming. They don't invest in staff and instead cut back. ... To me, customer service is key. You want whoever's out at the door welcoming people and saying goodbye, too.
How does your style differ from Gordon Ramsay's on "Kitchen Nightmares"? I don't see him touch the business aspect on his shows. He simplifies the menu, does the decoration, but he doesn't give them the 10 tips for success. I don't see anyone else affecting the business, systems or philosophy out there. Gordon Ramsay needs me, I think.
Which NYC restaurants do you think excel in terms of service? One of my favorite restaurants is Mr. Chow, because of its unique food and customer service. All the captains and staff know who I am, which I love.
What's your favorite New York City food? I love pizza. I like the kind that has a smoky, charcoaled bottom. In the city, I like John's down on Bleecker and Patsy's.
On TV: "Restaurant Stakeout" debuts on Food Network Wednesday at 10 p.m.