NEW YORK — 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 or getting involved in other ventures that spawn from their newfound fame.
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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-size 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.
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.
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,” Robertson says. 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 they 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 pawnshop 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. During an overseas vacation, he was swarmed by fans at the Tower of London.
“It amazes me,” Harrison says. “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’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 pawnshop’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 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 pawnshop?’”
Lynnae Schneller is hoping her family-run pickle business gets the green light. Schneller was approached by a production company to film a 5-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. in 2011. “We could never afford that kind of exposure.”
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 percent 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.”