NEW YORK, N.Y. – There’s no business like small business.
Mix the high stakes of running a small business with a dash of family drama and throw in a camera crew and you get hit reality television shows such as “Pawn Stars,” ”Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” and “Duck Dynasty.”
Turning small business owners into stars has become a winning formula for television producers, but some businesses featured in them are cashing in, too. Sales explode after just a few episodes air, transforming these nearly unknown small businesses into household names. In addition to earning a salary from starring in the shows, some small business owners are benefiting financially from opening gift shops that sell souvenirs or getting involved in other ventures that spawn from their new-found fame.
Sales at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas are five times higher than they were before “Pawn Stars” first aired in 2009. More people are pouring into the St. Louis restaurant featured in “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” to eat its jumbo-sized fried chicken wings and six-cheese macaroni and cheese. And Duck Commander, seen in “Duck Dynasty,” is having trouble controlling the crowds in front of its headquarters in the small city of West Monroe, La.
“Sometimes it’s hard getting from the truck to the front door,” says Willie Robertson, who owns Duck Commander with his father and stars in the A&E series with his extended family.
It’s a big change for a company that sells duck calls out of a part-brick, part-cinder block warehouse on a dry, dead-end country road. Duck hunters use the whistles, which mimic duck sounds, to attract their prey.
Since “Duck Dynasty” began airing in March 2012, Robertson finds at least 70 people waiting in front of the warehouse every morning asking for autographs and photos. Neighbors have complained about the mobs and the police have been called.
Despite the trouble, the show has been good for the family business. Sales of the company’s duck calls, which range from $20 to $175, have skyrocketed. In 2011, the company sold 60,000 duck calls. In 2012, the year the show began airing, the company sold 300,000. “We saw a big difference as the Nielsen ratings went up,” says Robertson.
Their income from doing the show may be going up along with the ratings. “Duck Dynasty” is the most watched documentary-style reality series on TV right now, according to Nielsen, which provides information and insight into what consumers watch and buy. April’s one-hour season three finale was watched by 9.6 million people, making it the most watched program in A&E’s 29-year history. The Hollywood Reporter reported that the cast of the show is demanding a raise to $200,000 an episode to do a fourth season. Both the network and Robertson had no comment on the report.
Cameras follow Robertson and his family as they make duck calls, hunt or go camping. One episode showed Robertson trying to prove to his dad, brother and uncle that he could spend a night in a tent during a camping trip. (Robertson ends up bringing a big recreational vehicle and is ridiculed for it. “Once you bring something with wheels that’s enclosed, you’re no longer camping. You’re parking,” says Robertson’s brother, Jace Robertson, in the episode.)
Duck Commander hired five more people to keep up with rising sales. Every duck call has to be put together by hand. “It’s like a musical instrument,” says Robertson. “Each one needs to be blown into it to make sure it works.”
To stop the crowds from disrupting business, and to make extra cash, Robertson opened a gift shop inside the Duck Commander warehouse. “It keeps the people out of my lobby,” says Robertson. The shop sells duck calls, Duck Commander T-shirts and bobblehead dolls that look like Robertson, his dad, uncle and brother, complete with their long beards.
Rick Harrison, the star of “Pawn Stars,” opened a gift shop, too. He sells mugs, T-shirts, bobbleheads and refrigerator magnets, in the back of his Las Vegas pawn store.
Harrison says the souvenirs bring in about $5 million in revenue a year. The pawn business brings in about $20 million a year, up from the $4 million before “Pawn Stars” aired.
The show, which follows people as try to sell or pawn items ranging from gold coins to classic cars, also stars Harrison’s son, his father and an employee named Austin “Chumlee” Russell.
People have been lining up outside the pawn shop since the reality show began airing on History in 2009. The store installed misters above the line to keep fans cool under the hot, Las Vegas sun.
Fame has disadvantages. Harrison says he wears a hat and sunglasses to disguise himself, even on visits to IHOP for pancakes with his kids. During an overseas vacation, he was swarmed by fans at the Tower of London
“It amazes me,” says Harrison. “I’m just a fat middle-aged bald guy, but people still want to meet me.”
Harrison is cashing in on his celebrity. He was hired as a spokesman for Procter & Gamble Inc.’s Swiffer cleaning wipes and he wrote a book, called “License to Pawn,” about his life and business. (Harrison declined to say how much he made on those deals.) He also rents out a 1,300-square-foot area in the back of the pawn shop’s building for private parties. The fee can range anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the number of people invited and whether Harrison or one of the shows stars to drops by.
Despite his fame, and busy 40-week-a-year filming schedule, Harrison says that his pawn business comes first.
“I do realize that television shows end,” he says, even though the show is coming back for a new season May 30. “I want to make sure I have a business when people are saying, ‘Hey, do you remember that show about four fat guys in a pawn shop'”
A show may end, but it’s not quickly forgotten. Hair stylist Elgin Charles, whose salon was featured on VH1’s “Beverly Hills Fabulous,” says he is still benefiting from the show even though it hasn’t been on the air for nearly two years.
Fans of the show still stop into Elgin Charles Beverly Hills to get their hair done, some from as far away as Australia and Nigeria. “The phone didn’t stop ringing for eight months after the show aired,” says Charles, who has owned the salon for 15 years.
Charles was recently cornered by fans at a Dallas nightclub trying to get a picture of him on their smartphones. “I can’t even walk the streets of New York without being approached,” he says. (Charles is hard to miss. He often wears shiny, dark, straight shoulder-length hair.) He has been paid to make appearances at hair shows and conventions. “Many doors have opened,” says Charles.
“The whole reason I did it was to make Elgin Charles Beverly Hills a household name,” says Charles. He’s says he’s putting his name on a school, called the Elgin Charles Universal Beauty College, which is expected to open this summer in downtown Los Angeles.
Reality TV has been good to Duff Goldman, too. Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” filmed Goldman and his employees at Charm City Cakes bakery as they made lavish cakes. (In one episode, they made a cake for a “Harry Potter” movie premiere party that looked like Hogwarts Castle, the boy wizard’s school.) “Ace of Cakes” ended in 2011, but Goldman and his bakery are still in high demand.
His name is on a line of cake mixes, kits and pans sold at Michaels, the arts and crafts store. His face is on cartons of Blue Bunny ice cream that have pieces of cakes mixed in. He teamed up with Godiva, the chocolate maker, to create limited edition cake truffles. In January, Goldman designed a nine-tiered cake for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Last year he opened a bakery in Los Angeles, called Charm City Cakes West. He says he is “strongly” considering a return to reality TV.
The publicity is hard to give up. The shows are essentially a free weekly national commercial for a small business. “There’s no better way to increase exposure,” says Jai Manselle, the founder of Manselle Media, a brand development and public relations company that has clients in the entertainment industry.
Manselle says that entrepreneurs considering reality TV should make sure the show will portray the business in a positive light. “If the show makes you look unprofessional, that may not be good,” he says. Manselle turned down an offer to turn his marketing business into a reality show last year because it didn’t feel right, but he is still open to the idea.
“If it’s not going to benefit the brand, don’t do it,” says Manselle. “The whole reason you’re doing this is to make money.”
Lynnae Schneller is hoping her family-run pickle business gets the green light. Schneller was approached by a production company to film a five-minute pilot that is being pitched to networks.
“I’ve never had a desire to be on reality TV, but from a business standpoint I can’t turn it down,” says Schneller, who started Lynnae’s Gourmet Pickles in Tacoma, Wash. in 2011. “We could never afford that kind of exposure.”
But reality-TV fame has a price. Charles says that he had to close his salon for two months while filming “Beverly Hills Fabulous.” He only had Sundays and one other weekday to style hair for clients. “They came in like a storm and took over,” says Charles. The producers set up storyboards that mapped out the episodes. “I didn’t have much control,” he says.
Editing can create misconceptions about the business. “Ace of Cakes” never showed the bakers washing their hands. Many viewers assumed that they didn’t. Goldman still gets emails and letters from viewers saying that they should be washing their hands. They did, it just never made it on the screen. “A show about people washing their hands would be a boring show,” Goldman says.
Another downside: Being bossed around. “I’m 47 and I’ve never worked for anybody in my life,” says Harrison of “Pawn Stars.” ”Now you have somebody else telling you what to do.” Producers tell him what time to come to work and he has to make appearances to promote the show. He has to take direction while filming. “They’ll say, ‘Rick, raise your voice you’re not talking loud enough,’ and it’s a 27-year-old director telling me these things,” says Harrison.
Not every small business makes good TV. Producers say they are most interested in family-run companies. “That’s the Holy Grail,” says Darryl Silver, the owner of The Idea Factory, the production company pitching Schneller’s pickle-business reality show. They do well because viewers are able to relate to the characters.
That’s true for the stars of “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.” Owner Robbie Montgomery says fans come to her restaurants featured in the show and liken her to their own grandmothers.
The show, which airs on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, follows Montgomery as she and her son run two restaurants in St. Louis and struggle to open a third. Montgomery has been filmed scolding her nephew when he shows up late for work. In another episode, she pushes her grandson to get better grades in school.
The show has brought more people to her restaurants. “There was a line around the block after the third or fourth episode,” says Montgomery. Sales have jumped 70 per cent at the restaurants, which serve Southern dishes such as pork steak smothered in gravy and candied yams. It debuted in 2011. A fourth season began filming in March.
Montgomery began selling $20 T-shirts in the restaurants after the show started. The shirts feature Montgomery’s quotes from the show.
One of the quotes could serve as advice for small businesses wanting to get into reality TV.
“If it don’t make money,” the shirt reads, “it don’t make sense.”
“Ace of Cakes” http://www.foodnetwork.com/ace-of-cakes/index.html
“Beverly Hills Fabulous” http://www.vh1.com/shows/beverly_hills_fabulous/series.jhtml
“Duck Dynasty” http://www.aetv.com/duck-dynasty/
“Pawn Stars” http://www.history.com/shows/pawn-stars
“Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” http://www.oprah.com/own-sweetie-pies/Welcome-to-Sweetie-Pies
Follow Joseph Pisani at http://twitter.com/josephpisani