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.
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,” said Willie Robertson, who owns Duck Commander with his father and stars in the A&E series with his family.
It's a big change for a company that sells duck calls out of a part-brick, part-cinder block warehouse.
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.
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,” said Robertson.
“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. 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.
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,” said 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 said 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.
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.)
For “Welcome to Sweetie Pie's,” owner Robbie Montgomery said 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,” said 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.