The rise of reality TV has created a new breed of celebrities known for their inane routines (think Jersey Shores Gym-Tan-Laundry combo) and absurd predicaments. (Big Brother, anyone?)
But some shows also have affected hundreds of small businesses, including a handful from the Charlotte area. And as their success stories demonstrate, even the briefest of stints on the national stage can have considerable impact and teach lessons to seasoned and newbie entrepreneurs alike.
Shoptalk spoke with local small business owners that have been featured on reality TV shows over the past couple of years to hear what theyve learned from their Hollywood experiences.
Here are their insights, each valuable whether you have a national bandwagon or an intimate, loyal following:
1. Every business needs a cohesive vision.
Before appearing on the Food Networks Restaurant Impossible, Dana and David Cohens Sweet Teas Restaurant in Pineville was months from closing its doors for good.
The restaurant, once a catering service only, had moved from Concord to a shopping center at the corner of Pineville-Matthews and Park roads.
But no matter how much advertising they did, they struggled with foot traffic. Applying for the show was kind of a last-ditch effort to get some big advertising, Dana Cohen said.
After an in-person interview, they were picked from the hundreds of applicants. Filming started in early December 2012, and their episode aired in March 2013.
Heres how the show works: Celebrity chef Robert Irvine spends two days revamping a struggling restaurant by changing the menu, retraining the staff and using $10,000 to renovate the interior.
Sweet Teas, Irvine said, didnt have a cohesive vision for the restaurant. The decor was more eclectic than cozy. And the self-proclaimed Southern comfort food spot had incongruent entrees such as chicken marsala and subs.
Irvine and his team retrained the staff and taught the chefs to cook everything with a Southern flair, adding menu items such as fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas and hushpuppies.
As for the interior: The way they redid the restaurant, its now warm, inviting, cabin-y, says Cohen, who cried during the on-air reveal. I feel like Im in my living room. Thats great.
Customers think so, too. Sales are up 300 percent, they regularly have a waiting list for tables, and theyre doing catering for Hollywood film crews in the area, Cohen said.
Before Restaurant Impossible, Sweet Teas struggled with identity, Cohen says. Now, she says, consistency is so important to us.
2. Creativity begets value and validation.
As Google and Facebook have demonstrated by spending millions on perks to generate spontaneous inspiration among employees, creativity is critical to success in the increasingly crowded 21st-century global economy. But thats important whether your business is a Silicon Valley tech giant or a family-run business in small-town USA.
Sisters-in-law Madeline Baucom and Enza Friedman, who opened Maddys Fattys Bakery in Cornelius, will attest to that.
The duo, who started their business out of Baucoms kitchen with no formal culinary training three years ago, applied to be on Cupcake Wars before theyd even opened their brick-and-mortar spot on U.S. 21.
Their Mission: Impossible-themed video, complete with one-piece leather cat suits and Tom Cruise-esque moves, caught the attention of the producers. And just five weeks after they opened their new facility (a tough one to explain to new customers thanks to the confidentiality agreement) they were flown to Los Angeles for filming.
Unbeknownst to the contestants, their episode had a soap-opera theme. That posed a problem for Baucom and Friedman: neither had ever seen a show.
The pair lost in the finals, but not before getting rave reviews from the judges for their creative confections, including Cheddar Habanero Crisp (the habanero pepper was an ingredient with a twist, just like every soap opera has), Strawberry Chocolate Seduction (which was topped with two figures in a bed made from fondant), and a tombstone-topped Gluten-Free Escaping Death cupcake (because someones always cheating death on soap operas, Friedman says).
The judges raved, says Baucom. We thought we were good, but when we saw they thought we were good, it showed were doing it right. We should trust our instincts.
3. A strong social media presence pays off.
Social media helped Heather McDonnell get her Fort Mill bakery, Cupcrazed, on Cupcake Wars just three months after it opened, and its been key to her strategy since.
A former school teacher-turned-stay-at-home mom, shed already built a Twitter following based on her blog, Stepford Life, a satirical take on her neighborhood, and had plans to open a bakery.
So when McDonnell was at home, watching the first season of the show a competition that starts with four contestants who are eliminated, one by one, in three rounds, all competing for a $10,000 prize she tweeted at @FNCupCakeWars to ask about casting. They told her to email them.
Within 10 minutes, a producer called to say they wanted to wait until her store was open but that shed made the short list, McDonnell says. And three seasons later, just months after McDonnell opened her shop on Market Street in Baxter Village and submitted a formal audition video, she made the cut.
After causing an on-air fire (customers still bring her fire extinguishers) and baking much-lauded sweet tea cupcakes with lemon sweet tea frosting, McDonnell and Cupcrazed won. One year later, she appeared on a special Cupcake Wars Champions episode, where she competed against other past winners. She was recently recognized as Martha Stewarts Entrepreneur of the Week.
Now, the bakery has more than 13,000 followers on Facebook 9,000 more than pre-show and every day McDonnell uploads photos of their coolest offerings, including the occasional TV-show-themed one. Take, for example, the Breaking Bad-themed blue crystal meth cupcake with blue rock candy, McDonnell says.
And if foot traffic is slow one day, a few new pictures posted to Facebook and Instagram can spike sales considerably, she says sometimes within the hour.
You better be good at social media if youre going to do something in retail, McDonnell says.
4. Solicit (and consider) expert advice.
After raising nearly $43,000 via a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, Ballantyne resident Gary Gagnon, 44, and his line of sneakers made of recyclable materials, Remyxx, were featured on the Season 3 finale of ABCs prime-time TV show Shark Tank in spring 2012.
On the show, aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their businesses ideas to a panel of self-made millionaires and billionaires (and potential investors), including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and FUBU fashion line founder Daymond John.
Gagnon asked for $50,000 in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the company.
John offered the money, but he wanted an 80 percent stake since Gagnons shoes werent on shelves yet.
Not prepared to give away that much equity in his fledgling company (now called ReKixx), Gagnon said the deal never went through.
Gagnon still has his full-time job as director of business development for Microban in Huntersville but, since the show, he and John have met in person twice and exchanged about 30 calls and emails, Gagnon says.
For now, John is Gagnons high-profile mentor. And later, if ReKixx takes off, John has said he could become a business partner, or at least help him close a deal, Gagnon says.
The due diligence comes after the show, he says. Its not a rags-to-riches story. ... But Shark Tank was great to help me get my act together.
McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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