Reality TV's new stars: Small businesses

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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 businesses featured in the shows are cashing in, too.

Sales explode after just a few episodes air, transforming these nearly unknown businesses into household names. In addition to earning a salary from starring in the shows, some owners open gift shops that sell souvenirs or get involved in other ventures that spawn from their newfound fame.

Sales at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas are five times higher than they were before "Pawn Stars" first aired in 2009. 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 A&E's "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. It's a big change for a company that sells duck calls out of a part-brick, part-cinder block warehouse on a dead-end country road.

Since "Duck Dynasty" began airing in March 2012, Robertson finds at least 70 people waiting in front of the warehouse every morning for autographs and photos. Neighbors have complained and the police have been called.

Despite the trouble, the show has been good for business. Sales have skyrocketed. In 2011, the company sold 60,000 duck calls. In 2012, the year the show began airing, the company sold 300,000.

The family's 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. The Hollywood Reporter reported the cast 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," 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 $4 million before "Pawn Stars" aired.

The show also stars Harrison's son, his father and an employee named Austin Russell, known as Chumlee.

People have been lining up outside the pawnshop since the reality show began airing on History in 2009.

Despite his fame, and busy 40-week-a-year filming schedule, Harrison says that his pawn business comes first.

"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?' "

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