For Willie Degel, picking a home-base for his prospective food empire has become obvious.
“Everybody I know is moving to Georgia," said Degel, founder of the New York-based Uncle Jack’s restaurant group and former host of Food Network’s "Restaurant Stakeout."
Degel, who opened his first Atlanta restaurant in 2016 in Duluth, signed a 10-year lease for his Uncle Jack's Meat House concept to anchor the final commercial building in the Peachtree Corners Town Center development. The only other Uncle Jack's Meat House is located in Astoria, New York.
But that's only the start of his future plans for the Peach State.
Willie Degel signed a 10-year lease to anchor the final commercial building in the Peachtree Corners Town Center development with an Uncle Jack’s Meat House.
Degel, who in 2016 wrote of his affinity for Gwinnett County, told Atlanta Business Chronicle this month he hopes to open as many as 10 metro Atlanta locations over the next five years.
The 52-year-old Queens, N.Y. native said he's eager to grow in Atlanta is looking for space in multiple locations, including Alpharetta's mixed-use town center Avalon, the Halcyon development in Forsyth County, and S.J. Collins' "Southern Post" redevelopment in Roswell.
The expansion could include any of an array of concepts from Degel's restaurant portfolio.
Degel owns two Uncle Jack's Steakhouses in New York City. His Long Island organic concept, Jack's Shack Organic Eatery, closed in late 2018 after nearly 10 years of operation. Degel also closed his Jack's Tavern concept in Midtown Manhattan late last year, citing increased rent and traffic issues related to its proximity to Trump Tower.
Degel told the Chronicle of ideas for a fast-casual burger concept and a butcher shop, as well as a refurbished trailer dubbed The Jack Shack that sells a limited menu of to-go items in front of his Duluth and Peachtree shops. He envisions the Jack Shack evolving into a food truck-type concept available for corporate events and parties. He expects the Duluth shack to be open by Christmas.
Degel said he's primarily aiming for city centers in the metro area that are about a half hour away from one another. He's currently eying the townhomes in downtown Alpharetta ("they remind me of brownstones in Manhattan") as a possible place to relocate within the next three years.
Degel said he's also interested in expanding to the intown neighborhoods, including Buckhead and the Atlanta Beltline.
“I’m open to anything in Georgia," he said. "I’m not scared of the city.”
Degel said he's also looking at more limited expansion in Miami, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Washington D.C.
"I looked at Chicago but was not happy with the opportunities," he said.
Degel's expansion vision is not a franchise model, saying he's looking for "working partners" willing to invest between $100,000-$250,000. Degel said opening a Meathouse concept costs about $1.5 million.
Degel's Peachtree Corners location, pegged to open in mid-2020, will have a substantially larger capacity (seating for 225 vs. 150) than in Duluth. That includes a 4,000-square-foot dining room, two patios, front bar lounge/outdoor café, and private party room. The New York’s Meatpacking District-style decor will replicate the Duluth location, with meat hooks and custom light fixtures incorporating butchers’ cleavers and chefs’ knives.
Degel acknowledged "growing pains" in the first year of the Duluth location as he built relationships, searched for the right management and staff, and tinkered with the menu. In Year 2, sales grew by 25%, he said.
Degel said New York restaurants face a burden of "over the top" regulation, and restauranteurs become "a statistic." That's not the case in the Peach State, he said.
"In Georgia, you’re looked at as an expert in your field, that you bring diversity of your brand to the community," he said. “Landlords in Georgia also aren’t looking to rape and pillage you like they do in New York. So it’s very different.”
Read more in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, here.