40 Lessons from Restaurant Stakeout by Willie Degel

Willie Degel Have you heard of the Reality TV  Show “Restaurant Stakeout” on Food Network presented by Willie Degel? I will share the 40 lessons from Restaurant Stakeout in this article. I discovered this show  some days ago and I must say that I was instantly hooked on it. I was fascinated by Willie’s competence, professionalism, energy, enthusiasm and drive.

So what is this show all about? It shows restaurant owners who experience service problems in their restaurants. What they do is to approach Willie Degel in order to get their problems sorted out. Willie’s strategy is to go – equipped with hidden cameras – behind the scenes of several restaurants across the USA in order to find out what is really going on inside their restaurant business. Often it ends with people being fired, but most of the time the staff gets properly trained and the business can be completely turned around. Willie Degel’s motto is “If you can’t see the problem, you can’t solve the problem!”

I found it inspiring to see another professional like Willie Degel who also finds enjoyment and satisfaction in making a difference in employees’ attitude as well as the success of several restaurants. I would describe this show as an: insightful, highly eye-opening and educational TV program.

Restaurant StakeoutFor those who have not heard of Willie Degel yet. He is is a restaurateur and television personality, the founder and CEO of “Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse” chain in New York City. In 2005 he was named one of Crain’s “40 under 40” entrepreneurs in New York City. In May 2012 he has also written a book called “Inside the Mind of a Serial Entrepreneur” published by Harper Collins.

After watching several episodes I’ve chosen my favourite two episodes. Here are some very important lessons from Restaurant Stakeout from which we can learn. It teaches several entrepreneurs to run their own businesses more professionally. Bear in mind that many lessons are not just tailored to the food/restaurant industry but are generally valid also for other sectors.
I really loved Willie’s approach. He is straight forward and results-oriented when revealing the naked truth!

Case 1- “Trends” Restaurant:

An interesting case of a Restaurant run by a father and his son. Find out in this video what issues they faced and how they were able to overcome them thanks to Willie Degel’s intervention and advice.


40 Lessons from Restaurant Stakeout Show by Willie Degel


# 1 – If a guest who is allergic to nuts makes a request for nut-free food you need to tell this to the kitchen and respect the guest’s wish. You can’t allow to have customers putting their health at risk because you didn’t act upon their request!

# 2 – Train your staff properly on how to measure and serve the drinks! Unprofessional employees can drive customers away. Seriously, no joke!

# 3 – Don’t allow your staff to be on social media while dealing with customers. They need to lock their mobile phones in their lockers!

# 4 – Gift vouchers should ideally be handled by the Restaurant Manager only and not by any other waiting staff.

# 5 – If you are the Manager focus on your task, don’t spend time outside the restaurant talking on your mobile phone, smoking a cigarette or doing something else when customers inside are waiting to be served.

# 6 – Make use of a drink tray if you need to serve more drinks all at once. Don’t serve two drinks with two hands if you have to serve 5 drinks to 5 people. Also learn to do it in a confident and professional way!

# 7 – If the service is bad, customers will never come back. Imagine on how many other people they will share their negative experience with.

# 8 – Once guests are entering your restaurant, you should always have someone standing there (or at least approaching the guests quickly) in order to give them a warm welcome and for the allocation of their seats.

# 9 – One of the lessons that Willie Degel also learnt is that everyone is stealing from the restaurant somehow, even though staff often doesn’t realise that. It will cost your business money every single day! That means you are making less money and you will have to increase your prices which then might lead to your customers going to your competitors. Ever thought about that?

# 10 – Unbelievable but true! Never allow customers to enter the kitchen by themselves to check on their food orders!

# 11 – Don’t share a drink on the job with your customer(s). Stay professional at all times. Never take the liberty to give out free drinks without permission.

# 12 – A manager needs to set an example for the staff. Spending time on a mobile phone and sitting around is not the right way to lead a team and to earn their respect!

# 13 – Make sure your employees never turn into clowns, doing embarrassing things (e.g. doing a chicken dance!) by acting unprofessionally and in-mature in front of all other guests!

# 14 – If nobody is managing and taking a leadership position at the restaurant, staff will start doing what they want. This will without a doubt reflect highly negatively on the business.

# 15 – Don’t allow your customers having to ask another waiter “Where is our waiter gone?”

# 16 – If you notice staff stealing money by putting it in their own pocket instead of putting it in the cash register, you have a very valid reason to fire the person! Stealing is being considered as a crime and can bring a business to his knees! Watch out!

# 17 – Everyone might make mistakes once in a while. If you have a bad experience with a customer you need to tackle it, manage it and sort it out there and then!

# 18 – Trust is important. If people don’t trust you it could be because you have already broken their trust once. If that is the case, you need to try to gain that person’s trust back again.

The changes and results that Willie made at the Trends Restaurant were the following:

– Nick, the son of the restaurant owner is doing a great job (taking care of the customers, drilling the staff down to focus and to do their job properly).
– Everyone is now being held accountable.
– The bartender’s behaviour has improved considerably: making sure guests are not over-drinking, shows a more professional and mature behaviour, is organised and on point.
– The lunch business is booming.
– The business is more profitable.
– The customers are getting a great experience.

Case 2 – “Barzola” Restaurant:

An interesting case of a Restaurant which is being run by two brothers.

# 19 – If you want to be respected as a leader in your restaurant you need to show your best behaviour. Avoid going around in your restaurant by talking on your mobile and holding drinks in your hand instead of focusing on running the business.

# 20 – Seems to be something obvious but real life shows another picture. Make sure your staff is not chewing gum when talking and serving your customers.

# 21 – It does make a huge different how your staff is communicating with your guests. Train them how not to talk down to them, how not to make them feel like idiots and how not to be rude.

# 22 – It is crucial that your staff has detailed menu knowledge. How embarrassing would it be if every time the waitress would have to go to the kitchen to ask for the details about several menu items. How would you feel if you found out that your waiting staff can’t be bothered to remember the ingredients of a dish and tells the guests simply “We don’t have this menu currently!” Also don’t allow your staff to make statements such as “I don’t know the dish, I have never tried it before so I can’t tell.” If staff doesn’t have knowledge about the food, how are they going to sell various meals to your customers? Train them and make sure guests will leave the restaurant by being more knowledgeable about what they had for lunch/dinner.

# 23 – This is a customer service business, you can’t afford having staff employed which shows a bad attitude. How you handle things with customers is everything!

# 24 – Make sure you have the items you list on your menu on stock (10-15 % ideally). Inventory needs to be checked on a regular basis. If you can’t anything that your guests wish, you will have a serious problem.

# 25 – If you hire and work with your own relatives (e.g. brother, cousin etc.) don’t take it for granted that they know how to run the restaurant successfully.

# 26 – Always have a Plan B to protect your business.

# 27 – If a customer is complaining to your waitress and the waitress approaches the boss about an issue, the boss should have the decency to talk to the disgruntled customer. Ignoring the client by just walking by without saying anything and instead talking to someone on the mobile phone is really the wrong way of dealing with the situation.

# 28 – Can you really afford it to have people aboard who have a highly negative attitude when dealing with customers? You need to improve the situation or get rid of those people. It will put your guests off very quickly.

# 29 – Ensure that the waiting staff (with a client-facing role) does not “hate” people. In this business you need to truly enjoy people!

# 30 – If a guest calls the waiter and the only thing the waiter does is to ignore the guest, don’t be surprised if your client(s) walk straight out of the door (even after having placed their order!) It’s money walking out the door!

# 31 – Don’t just assume that your staff knows certain things. Make sure you know exactly what they know and what they don’t know! If they are unknowledgeable you need to educate or train them accordingly.

# 32 – If you do a lousy job, don’t expect a 15 % tip from your customers. It’s not written in stone that you have always to right to get a tip. Meet and exceed client’s expectations and you will receive!

# 33 – Respect your boss. There are certain ways on how to communicate on a professional and appropriate way when dealing with your boss. Never interrupt your boss when dealing with clients by taking him aside to discuss an issue.

# 34 – Having staff that throws around plates and kitchen utensils in the kitchen (which is not going unnoticed by guests seating nearby) is not acceptable. Inappropriate scenes in front of all the customers need to be avoided at all costs.

# 35 – Don’t allow your staff to destroy your business by turning off your most patient customers.

# 36 – If you need to tell staff over and over again what they need to do, you need to help them to improve. Otherwise look for other people who are self-motivated and take their own initiative.

# 37 – You need to set priorities by caring about your customers and not about yourself (smoking, watching TV, being on Facebook etc.)

# 38 – A restaurant business does not run by itself. It takes management and execution. You should ask yourself: How can I do it better? How can we get more clients? etc.

# 39 – The nicer you treat people at a table, the more money you can make! Give them a great experience instead of showing them a bad attitude!

# 40– Train your staff and show them how certain dishes are being prepared. Tell them to take notes too! Ask them to repeat what you showed and told them to be absolutely sure that they understood how something is being prepared and cooked. Make sure they have very detailed knowledge. (For example, if onions are being used, do they know which ones: white or red onions?) The more knowledgeable the staff is, the better it will reflect on the quality of the staff and the business. Do some role-plays with them to find out how good they would be able to sell it to a customer. (In this video you can really see the difference that Willie made on Maria!!) There is no doubt that staff will leave a better impression on customers if they are able to tell them what the ingredients of a meal are and how it is being made.

The changes and results that Willie made at the Barzola Restaurant were:

– Staff is now much happier and positive.
– Sales figures have dramatically increased.
– Waiting staff is much more knowledgeable on the food items and can educate their customers.
– Inventory control is properly being taken care of (running out of items doesn’t occur anymore).
– Staff gets proper direction and is much more focused on the service.
– A strong team has been build.
– Every aspect of customer service is being monitored.

Some other lessons from Restaurant Stakeout and tips that Willie gave the two brothers were: offering drinks half price during happy hours, putting up more visuals and placing TVs at the right place inside the restaurant.

If you love this show as much as I do, you are more than welcome to watch more episodes (which currently is in its 5th series) via YouTube. Check it out and don’t forget: Learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime! Why not following Willie on Twitter too (@WillieDegel)?


What was your biggest takeaway today from these lessons from Restaurant Stakeout? Which lesson are you most excited to use in your own career? I would appreciate it if you could leave a comment and let me know. If you know anyone who could benefit from this article, make sure you share it. You’ll be helping them out and me too! Thanks!


Author: Karin Schroeck-Singh

Karin Schroeck-Singh is a trilingual Career Optimizer at www.Careerheads.com. She has an MBA from the University of Leicester (UK) and gained 20 years of international work experience in various industries in Italy, the UK and India. Her passion lies in creating multilingual, high-quality content in career matters, giving highly engaging public speeches and helping job seekers to optimize their career by providing professional coaching. She is the author of several ebooks, among them “44 Tips for a successful Video Interview” (http://careerheads.com/product/ebook-44-tips-for-a-successful-video-interview/). She has written several career and business articles for international HR and Marketing companies. Her favourite motto is “Learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime!” Follow her on Twitter @CareerHeads.

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