Willie "Jack" Degel Likes to Film But Not to Pay, Allegedly

Posted on 27 Jul 2014 21:20

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Willie "Jack" Degel, owner of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse, with three locations in New York City, as well as a burger restaurant, is best known as the host of Restaurant Stakeout on The Food Network. In the show, he helps restaurants in trouble. Unlike most such shows, the problems of these restaurants usually do not stem from bad food and cleanliness issues, but a poor front of house, with bad management and untrained waitstaff.

According to Degel, the secret to running a successful business is to show your employees you do not trust them by monitoring their every move on cameras set up all around the store. He uses this hidden camera "stakeout" technique to reveal the shortcomings at the troubled restaurants he visits, and then makes speeches to help "whip them into shape." As well, he sometimes teaches the bartenders how to make god-awful mixed drinks full of every fruit juice imaginable.

According to some former employees, besides spying on your employees via hidden cameras, he thinks the other secret to success is to not pay them the wages they are owed.

A wage theft lawsuit was filed against Degel's restaurants by former employees who worked for the restaurants between September 2002 to September 2008. Workers involved in the suit included captains, waiters, runners, bussers, and bartenders, who claimed that they were not paid the legal minimum wage, had their hours shaved if they worked over 40 hours, and were not paid overtime wages for working over 40 hours. Also, the restaurants did not pay spread of hours pay when workdays were longer than ten hours and employees had to pay to launder their own uniforms. You'd think Degel was a McDonald's franchise owner.

The suit was settled and on May 22, 2014 Judge Loretta Preska, Southern District of New York Chief United States District Court Judge approved a settlement of $900,000 to benefit the workers involved in the suit. Around 239 employees are expected to benefit from the settlement.

It doesn't end there. Apparently, Willie just don't like to pay. He was also sued by former housekeeper Ana Jiminez, who said he cheated her out of overtime wages, paying her only $400 to $500 in cash a week even though she worked 70 hours a week cleaning his Long Island palaces.

Restaurant Stakeout A Big Fat Greasy Fake

As for the "hidden camera" show Restaurant Stakeout, well, I wouldn't take it too seriously. It's as fake as the similar show Mystery Diners and there have even been allegations that some of the employees on the shows are hired actors.

First, the premise is that desperate restaurant owners contact Willie Degel to ask him to help turn around their failing restaurant. Degel them swoops in with his crew, installs hidden cameras and, using a nearby hidden room, does a stakeout where he and the owner(s) watch the hi-jinks that ensue when the owner is away, and then Willie shakes things up before whipping the operation into shape.

Yet, as an article in the Nanuet Patch reveals, the very first restaurant featured on the show, The Lexington Grille and Pub never contacted the show for help. The show came to them and asked to feature them. There was no indication that the restaurant was actually having trouble, and according to the owners it was just a "fun experience." The show hired, apparently, many extras to be intentionally annoying.

However, a big clue to how fake it may well be is that the images are too clear, given the typical lighting in restaurants, to be truly "hidden" cameras, and the cameras are not hidden well in the first place. If you ever want to see what "reality TV" would look like if it were really reality, watch a documentary where the author must hide a camera on themselves to film somewhere it is not allowed, or desired. True hidden camera documentaries are characterized by bad sound, a fuzzy and jumpy picture with a subject that is either too far away or too close and which is out of frame half the time. According the comments in the above article, wires were ran, etc., but also mentioned was the fact that the employees were camera tested in advance. In other words, they knew they were to be filmed. Fake, fake, fake.

As well, the sheer variety of camera angles on Restaurant Stakeout make it unlikely that the show is filmed entirely through hidden cameras. The real clincher? The sound quality. You can hear everything said way too well, as if the employees, who are not supposed to know they are being watched, are actually miked. The situations are just a bit too outrageous to be 100% real and you have to wonder why some of the people, after having their outrageous behavior filmed and recorded, would sign releases to allow it to appear on the show. Is Willie Degel right, most of the time, about how customers should be treated? Sure. But it doesn't take a PhD in restaurantology to figure that out.

According to Reality Blurred, a report by the Journal News (lohud.com) revealed the fakeness, and one of the Mike Solicito, who owns the Lexington Grille and Pub, the first restaurant featured above, claimed that it's all fake, saying "none of it's real."

Solicito didn't say more, but the owner of Mount Ivy Cafe did, claiming that the show hired paid actors, told the real employees how to behave and what to do, and informed the staff how they would be portrayed in the final product. Also, which should be obvious to you if you pay close attention to the show, the timeline is faked, with what takes one filming being stretched artificially to make it seem like several days have gone by.

Like Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred, I find the climactic confrontations at the end of the shows to be as flat as a pancake. The reactions are stilted and artificial, and it is obvious that the shots of staff's reaction are out of context. They already know what is going on. Another clue is the owner's very poor faking of a "big meeting" trying to get things started before Degel "appears on set" to take things over. Like Mystery Diners, this show amounts to a big television commercial for the restaurants involved, except that most commercials don't pretend to be real.

Willie Degel seems to think that his couple of restaurants make him akin to the Godfather of the restaurant business. He speaks of his highly successful chain of steakhouse restaurants, but this "chain" is actually a mini-chain of three. His opinions of what is proper are sometimes ridiculous, like his insistence that a pizzeria must have "gluten free" (which he pronounces grrlluudn) and "whole wheat" crusts, the two of which he seems to think are interchangeable, to serve all the people with self diagnosed gluten allergies.

A review of the Yelp pages for Uncle Jack's Steakhouse reveals some good and some bad. Food is good but not up to some of the competition. Prices are outrageous. Service is, alas, uneven. Decor is stuffy and outdated, not to mention the air, since at the time of this writing there are several complaints about the lack of air conditioning (Midtown West). Apparently, there are 5-star shining moments and abysmal, no-star moments, which would seem to reveal that hidden cameras do not make for automatic restaurant perfection. Since Uncle Jack came to town, there has been some stiff competition opening up, and from what I can gather, Willie is resting on his glory day laurels. You could go there and be mighty pleased, on the right night at the right time, or you could feel mighty cheated, especially if you didn't have a Groupon coupon.

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