Monday, November 19, 2012

Restaurant Stakeout

Dinner and a Television Show

Stakeout at the Steakhouse  

Note: Instead of doing our usual Dinner and a Movie, we are taking leave this time to present Dinner and a Television Show. We hope you enjoy this excursion off the road most traveled.

Restaurant Stakeout (The Jay and Tony Show/Food Network, 2012)

By Ed Garea

“Have you ever had the feeling that you were being watched?” – Bugs Bunny, Hair Raising Hare (WB, 1946)

The staffs of restaurants might well be asking themselves that very same question if they ever tune into this show. It answers the old question of “When the cat’s away, do the mice play?” Do they ever play! In fact, viewers will be asking themselves how these sorts of antics could be taking place.

Wille Degel, owner of the popular Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse and Jack’s Shack All-Natural Eatery in New York, is known for running a tight ship. And he’s also known for his world-class service. Degel’s philosophy is that all the good food in the world will not bring a customer back if the service is lousy. In his view, the customer is the king and should be treated as such if a restaurateur ever expects that customer to return. Degel ensures his good service by installing cameras in the premises of his establishments. He can see what’s going on every day, and more importantly, stop a problem before it grows into a bigger one that could lead to the loss of business.

So what Degel does is help out restaurants that aren’t doing as well as they should – or did in the past. His thinking is that when the owner’s away, the employees will play, a line of thought that is borne out in what his cameras catch them doing in those hours when they are unsupervised.

And is he ever right. If this were scripted, the employees couldn’t do a better job of screwing up. In their defense, most of them are young and immature. But still, even though it’s not a high-paying job, one should still have enough self-respect to do the best job possible, especially with some of the pushover owners they work for.

What Degel does is meet with the owner, get the keys, and have his team come into the place after closing and install cameras seemingly everywhere. He sets up HQ in a nearby location and shows the owner what’s happening when he or she is not there. Degel is there to supply the outrage while the owner supplies the necessary surprise. Degel also sends in actors to test the staff on certain points, giving each of them a role as fussy, allergic, wishing to book the place for a catered party, etc. The responses from the staff are oft times hilarious and sure to bring out groans in the audience. In one instance they captured a waitress throwing a napkin at an angry customer. In another they filmed one of the waiters having an impromptu wrestling match with one of the customers for the benefit of the assistant manager, who clearly should’ve known better.

The payoff comes when Degel has the owner hold an emergency meeting so he can make his entrance dispensing what he seems to excel in: tough love. He meets with some of the staff to temper their feelings and makes suggestions to the owner as who to fire immediately, whom to promote, etc. Oft times these days there are many talented people working in these places because they cannot find a job in their field. They could also be invaluable to the owner as an assistant manager or some other management position, which would take much of the load off the back of the owner. Degel seems to have a good eye for spotting these types.

Yet, while Restaurant Stakeout is certainly entertaining, the theme leaves little room for variety, and this could be a show viewers tire of quickly.

But in the meantime it is one great ride.

On the Food Network’s webpage, Degel lists his tips for an enjoyable restaurant experience:

     With the internet, it’s easy to be an educated customer. Know as much as you can before you walk in the door. (Editors’ note: And if you really want to know just how good a restaurant is, just read Steve’s column, or write us and give us the name of the restaurant you wish to visit. If he’s been there, and the odds are likely that he has, Steve will clue you in as to whether or not it’s worth your money.)

     Tell restaurants exactly what you want. The staff is not mind readers — if you want a specific table, ask for it. You need to be proactive, not reactive. You’re not hurting anyone’s feelings.

     How a restaurant maintains their storefront and represents their brand to the public is one of the most important things. Check the bathrooms. If the bathrooms are clean, you know the kitchens are clean as well.

     A good restaurant’s menu should be short and simple. You want to know what the product is. If the menu looks like a Bible, run away.

     Dining out with kids? Plan ahead. My daughter, has a little bag she takes. My son takes a book, he likes to read. We do all these little things to keep them active, which helps make the experience a little better.

     Order the kids’ food first. If we order an appetizer, we order the kids’ entrées at the same time. If we order dessert, we say “have the check ready for us” so we can make a quick exit if the kids get restless.
But . . . how good is Degel at following his own advice? We here at Celluloid Club were wondering, so we sent in our Galloping Gourmet, Steve Herte, to put Degel’s claims to the test. We’ll see just how valid are his claims. Following is his experience.

Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse
440 9th Avenue (34th Street), New York

By Steve Herte

When I chose the Ninth Avenue incarnation of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, it was partly on a recommendation from Ed and partly location. It was easy walking distance from the movie theater on 42nd Street.

The first impression was of a happy, homey, not too brightly lit, and visually appealing place where I could be comfortable dining. I like sitting near a window so that I can watch the street scene while enjoying my food. This was accommodated. I did not have to wait long for cocktail service and, when the order was placed, the drink arrived shortly after and did not taste watery as if it sat on the ice too long waiting to be poured.

I had no idea there were cameras in the restaurant, but when I return I’ll look for them. The service was indeed wonderful and timely. No course arrived at the same time as the previous one (or earlier, as I have experienced in other places), the portions were generous and perfectly cooked to my specifications (I like my steak one way only) and I never had to pour my own wine. When I waffled over side dishes, the waiter revealed that I could have a half-and-half side dish, which was the best of two worlds.

The only negative was I wish they had a handheld menu. The menu was on a chalkboard over the bar and was quite readable for me, but had my Mom been there, she could not have read it (macular degeneration). But I’m also sure that the serving staff would have compensated for just such an occasion.

Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse lives up to Wille Degel’s standards perfectly. In fact, it was so good that it replaced my benchmark steakhouse Ruth’s Chris in overall dining experience as well as steak preparation (the latter has been a favorite for over 20 years). On my next visit I’ll have to leave room for dessert.

In my compilation of 2,503 restaurants I have only been to one other establishment run as well as Uncle Jack’s and that would be City Hall Restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Chef Meen’s staff is similarly trained to not only serve courteously and timely but to make you feel at home, taking the time to address you by name, offer a newspaper if the timing of a dish requires a wait and greeting you as an old friend, welcoming you to City Hall. Again, like Uncle Jack’s, the food is consistently excellent, but it’s the staff that give you that “Aaah, I’m home!” feeling. I would say maybe 10 out of all of my restaurants gave me that feeling.

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