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 that sell souvenirs or getting involved in other ventures that spawn from their new-found fame.
The Associated Press
In this 2007 file photo, Robbie Montgomery talks to diners in Sweetie Pie’s, Montgomery’s soul food restaurant in St. Louis.
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. 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.
To keep up with rising sales, Duck Commander hired five more people. 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, 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 $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.
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. (He declined to say how much he made on those deals.) 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'"
Not every small business makes good TV. Producers say they are most interested in family-run companies. 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 her 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."