The Will to succeed: Willie Degel

Growing up in Queens, the youngest of four driven boys born to industrious parents, Willie Degel developed his entrepreneurial spirit at an early age.

"I had three paper routes, I sold lemonade, you name it -- I did what I could to make money," says Degel, owner of New York's Uncle Jack's Steakhouse chain and star of Food Network's "Restaurant Stakeout," premiering Sunday, March 11. "I was always hungry and eager, and I was never scared of failure."

In fact, it was failure that helped Degel form the signature tough-and-tender business acumen that has made him famous. Following his father's death when he was 20, Degel tried a few shortcuts to success and found himself in jail for several months instead. He realized the only path to prosperity is gutting it out -- and everyone deserves a fresh start.

"I have these 'Willie-isms,' " Degel says of his hard-won maxims, "and one of my favorites is 'I'm successful from giving.' I give it all I got, I never give up, and I give back every chance I have."

With that in mind, Degel hires people who impress him with potential rather than a loaded resume. "I see everybody as an artist," he explains. "God has given us all talents, but a lot of people don't know how to work with that. I evaluate everybody and see what you're good at, put you in that position and let you flourish -- even if I might have to smack you in the butt a few times to put you in the right direction."

Via "Stakeout," Degel hopes to teach other restaurateurs that talent. After casing each eatery incognito, Degel uses hidden cameras to show the head honchos where they need help. "Right away, the owners are like, 'Wow!' " he says, "but then they point out things to me as well, and we get to know who this owner really is. Why is he in this business? How's it affecting his family and his life? Then we talk about the staff -- who they are and why they were hired."

Degel believes the outcome is worth it for everyone involved -- including viewers. "I think they're going to be so intrigued by how much they learn," he says. "The way I run my restaurants is an education process -- and I want this show to be an education process, too."

What are you currently reading? "I'm not a reader. I read people. So right now what I'm reading is every owner and every employee for every location I work for."

What did you have for dinner last night? "A grilled chicken salad."

What is your next project? "I have a brand-new restaurant concept that I opened up in Glen Head, Long Island, called Jack's Shack: Naturally the Best. The whole place is built from recycled materials, and the menu is all natural -- no hormones, no steroids, no antibiotics, no preservatives, no nitrates in anything we serve."

When was the last vacation you took -- where and why? "We just took a week and went to Woodloch Pines in Pennsylvania."