Whether you think reality TV is a guilty pleasure or the harbinger of a doomed civilization, it’s likely fodder for discussion around the water cooler. But how do people go from watching these train wrecks to becoming part of them? While the lovelorn, survivalists and housewives tend to dominate reality TV, businesses and entrepreneurs also are getting in line to bask in the limelight. From competitive cooking shows to Pawn Stars, Project Runway and Shark Tank, businesses and entrepreneurs can also get their 15 minutes of fame.
A number of NH companies have been featured on reality shows and chances are good that some of you reading this may even be considering it. It’s tempting to put your business in front of a national, or even international audience, in hopes of driving big sales. The question is, does that actually happen? Does the reality TV spotlight brighten the future, or does a business wilt under its glare? And how real is reality TV?
We put these questions, and more, to NH businesses that have gone through it and found a range of experiences, from those who loved it and would gladly do it again to others that say it’s as real as the Tooth Fairy, but unlike the Tooth Fairy they didn’t even make a buck off of it.
Country Cow Restaurant and Bar in Campton
Show: Restaurant Impossible
Network: Food Network
Original Air Date: Aug. 20, 2014
Episode Description: Holy Cow! When Chef Robert Irvine talks to the staff at Country Cow Restaurant and Bar in Campton, he hears horror stories of the co-owners, a divorced couple, throwing pans in the kitchen and cursing throughout the dining room. But everyone is on their best behavior when Irvine arrives, forcing him to check out behind-the-scenes footage, which reveals the problems that need to be fixed.
If you’re not a Restaurant Impossible aficionado, here’s the lowdown. Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine and his design team come to failing restaurants to help turn them around in three days. It can get rough. A spotlight is shined on whatever is wrong—bad management, bad food, poor hygiene. And it’s done before a national audience.
Jennifer Leonzi, who ran the Country Cow Restaurant and Bar with partner, chef and ex-husband Kerry Benton, sought out Irvine’s help when the restaurant was at a breaking point. The recession had hit the restaurant hard, and Leonzi and her staff found it difficult to deal with Benton, whose temper was evident on the show.
At first Leonzi was turned down in favor of Gusanoz in Lebanon. (See profile.) But in March 2014, Leonzi got a second chance.
“Things happened really quickly. They wanted to make sure they were not coming to a place that is actually making money. I had to give 10 years worth of tax returns,” Leonzi says. Within two months, the Restaurant Impossible crew started prepping for the shoot that would start the next day. “It was an operation. They had 24-hour security. You couldn’t get on the property unless you had a security band.”
The three days of shooting were an emotional rollercoaster ride for the partners, starting with their first meeting with Irvine on camera. “It was crazy. You have to answer all these questions and talk about things you haven’t had to talk about in 12 or 15 years. It’s very emotional … It’s harder than I thought it would be,” Leonzi says.
She says Irvine arrives with little information and interviews owners and staff. Leonzi says they had about an hour to prepare lunch on Day One, serving customers the show attracted through an advertisement on Craig’s List. Irvine took Leonzi to task for clutter at the drink station, snapping at her in front of the 50 customers to clean it up. Irvine then tried the food. “Apparently he hated everything,” Leonzi says.
Although a chief complaint aired during interviews with Leonzi and the staff was Benton’s temper, Benton kept his cool during the lunch service, baffling Irvine. Knowing that might be an issue, Leonzi had made a video of her partner’s usual behavior ahead of time, and she pulled Irvine aside to show it to him.
After a long first day, Benton said he wanted out, so Irvine asked Leonzi if she could carry on alone. “I was sitting there and the tears were falling down my face,” Leonzi recalls. “I got home that night and said to my husband, ‘I’m scared to do this on my own.’ I’d never done anything in the kitchen. I ran the front of house.” Leonzi returned the next morning and viewers then saw Benton sign over his half of the business.
Irvine was supposed to appear at a local high school, but instead spent the entire day with Leonzi. “We went over reports and recipes. He gave me an hour to write down all my questions and sat with me all day,” Leonzi says. “That was the moment I felt Robert and I connected.” Irvine even stayed after production wrapped to sing karaoke in the bar. “He sang Dancing Queen and got me up there to sing with him. He was buying shots for everyone,” Leonzi says.
Before Irvine’s departure, he shared with Leonzi that 78 percent of the restaurants the show helps go on to succeed, and the ones that fail are those that revert to their old ways. She still gets advice from him. “I have Robert’s number and his chef’s number. I speak to his chef quite often and he gives me great ideas.”
So has the show helped Country Cow succeed? Leonzi says sales have doubled from last year. “People definitely came after they saw the show. We had a couple come from Boston because they saw our show,” she says. “I was finally able to pay our property taxes in August from cash we had rather than our line of credit.”
Leonzi says she loved the changes Irvine and his crew made and has made only slight alterations to the menu, including switching up one of Irvine’s dishes—barbecue red fish—that was time consuming to make and wasn’t selling. The Country Cow also added some old dishes back.
What’s it like to appear on a reality show? Leonzi says, “I don’t know if I could ever do it again, but I would not take back the experience. It’s changed my life and my outlook.”
Cucina Aurora in Salem
Show: Master Chef with Gordon Ramsey
Original Air Date: May 22, 2013
Episode Description: The hopefuls will prepare their signature dishes and present them to the distinguished “MasterChef” judging panel. The judges will taste for flavor, creativity and presentation. In order to earn a coveted white apron and move to the next round, the home cooks must have an immense passion for food and be determined to win.
Dawn Aurora Hunt didn't even get 15 minutes of fame on Master Chef with Gordon Ramsey, but her air time did come at a price: “It was amazing I survived it and the company survived it. It was a great, wonderful, terrible, awful experience I wouldn’t do again,” she says of the casting calls, auditions, a 4,000-question psychological test and one week of filming the same day over and over.
Hunt—who doesn’t watch cooking shows—was hand-picked by the show to audition because she calls herself “the kitchen witch,” a title referring to her pagan beliefs in spirituality and connecting with the earth. Her cooking skills sealed the deal. Her company makes infused olive oils, dried risotto mixes and gluten-free cooking mixes.
”They were looking specifically for a witch. Because I’m pagan, they put me in the crazy category,” she says. But Hunt could not be bewitched; she had too much integrity. One week before the filming, a producer called to ask if she had a hat. Did they mean a witch hat, she asked? She said she did not. She also said no to a broom or a skull. If I were a Christian would you ask me to come carrying a life-size crucifix? Their response: No, we’d get in trouble. Yes you would, she said, and arrived hatless. “They wanted me to exploit myself and my community but I wouldn’t do it,” she says.
Her experience did not bring her wealth or a stream of new business; it instead taught her she did not need reality TV to be successful. As one of 100 finalists she was in a shared hotel room, had to purchase her own food (both for cooking on set and to eat) and could not leave the room without a production assistant in tow. The meal she cooked on set—three-cheese risotto with a pan-fried chicken cutlet, bruschetta and arugula mascarpone pesto dip—was “probably the best meal I have ever made.” Gordon Ramsey thought it had too much garlic.
Ramsey’s opinion, luckily, is not universal. Her company revenue quadrupled between 2011 and 2013, and she recently signed on with a venture capital investment team to help with future growth, though she is still the majority owner. While she would never go on a show like Ramsey’s again, some of her staff suggested she audition for Shark Tank and she is “considering it.”
Danley Demolition in Fremont
Show: Bid & Destroy
Network: National Geographic
Original Air Date: 2012 (12 episodes)
Series Description: “The Danley Demolition crew are property pirates on a hunt to discover buried treasure on the brink of destruction. After winning a grueling bid on a property, the guys from Danley Demo race against the clock to hunt down as many hidden treasures and rare items left behind to turn a profit, before they decimate and demolish the building to the ground.”
Lee Danley says his experience on National Geographic’s Bid & Destroy was anything but real. Danley has been tearing down buildings for over 30 years and began down his unlikely path as a reality show personality when Bryan Gurry of American Builder on NECN approached him at a job site in Nashua about filming the tear down of a restaurant. Gurry then filmed Danley tearing down a hotel in North Conway and told Danley he would get him on television.
Sure enough, Gurry connected with Leftfield Productions in New York, the producers behind Pawn Stars on The History Channel, Danley says, who liked the idea and ended up selling the show to National Geographic.
Danley says he thought the show was going to film his crew demolishing buildings, but instead it focused on items scavenged from the demolition sites that then sold for a profit before the tear downs. “They wanted to put things in the buildings so we could find more attractive things and have people came on site to do bidding, which never happens,” Danley says.
Danley and his crew filmed 12 episodes of the show. “They were supposed to be here for three months of filming, but it took six months. It was slowing us down to the point it was hurting us.”
Danley says his business lost “a lot” of money due to the filming. “We may have gotten some jobs because people saw us on TV, but it was not a big money maker like I thought it would be,” he says.
Not that the entire experience was bad. Danley says it was fun being part of a television show, and even though the show is no longer in production, people still see the reruns around the world and send fan mail. The demolition firm even has an online gift shop selling hats and shirts. “It’s surprising how many people want a hat or shirt,” Danley says.
Despite the modicum of fame, Danley would not do it again. “Toward the end I thought it was too fake,” he says, claiming the show planted items like Bobby Orr autographed hockey sticks in buildings to make it more interesting. “I was embarrassed to do some of the things they wanted. My competitors would call and say the show is fake as hell, but it’s fun to watch.”
SURFSET Fitness in Manchester
Show: Shark Tank
Original Air Date: September 2012
Episode Description: Sarah Ponn (now Hartwick) and Michael Hartwick seek an investment in their fitness company, SURFSET Fitness. They created the world’s first total body surf trainer that’s designed to mimic the instability of a surfboard on water. They partner with Mark Cuban, who gave them $300,000 in exchange for 30 percent equity.
Two years after appearing on Shark Tank, SURFSET Fitness co-owners Sarah and Michael Hartwick are still riding the waves of success. More than 250 studios in 15 countries offer classes on the RipSurferX, a surfboard that sits on rubber air bladders and is used to mimic the feel of real surfing. The company had $500,000 in reve nue in 2012, the year the couple appeared on Shark Tank. In 2013, SURFSET hit $5 million and has remained at that level.
On Shark Tank, the couple asked for $150,000 for a 10 percent stake, but competition among the sharks resulted in a $300,000 investment by Mark Cuban, a billionaire serial entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, in return for a 30 percent stake. The Hartwicks used half of that money to manufacture the boards, which they also sell to individuals, although most of their profit is generated from licensing the use of their fitness programs to gyms and fitness studios. The other half of the investment is sitting in a money market account untouched as sales took off after Shark Tank and other angel investments provided the needed cash flow.
The Hartwicks email with Cuban once a week with updates and say they see a spike in sales and visits to SURFSET gyms every time the episode or follow-up airs. Mike Hartwick says the show is as you see it. “I think the format is the manipulation,” he says. “The way it’s 100 percent live; they bring you in and they nerve you up. They want reality TV. Most companies look at deals for a few weeks. We had to look on the spot.”
Sarah Hartwick says they have chosen slow, steady growth and learned to work only with gyms that are top notch. She says the slow growth is one of the pieces of advice Cuban gave them, along with the importance of mastering what they do currently before taking on new projects and having both service and product revenue. They receive many calls from potential gyms and studios just because of Shark Tank. But they are selective about their partnerships. “We don’t want boards in places where people have a bad experience,” she says. They learned from their experience of two gyms with SURFSET boards closing, which Mike Hartwick says “makes us look bad.”
Besides Cuban, they also speak with people about to be on Shark Tank—sometimes as many as 50 calls in a two-month period from people who find their number online and want advice. “Mike was on the phone every day with them [in June and July]. He’s really nice about it,” Sarah Hartwick says.
Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe in Keene
Show: Guy’s Grocery Games
Network: Food Network
Original Air Date: Dec. 1, 2013
Episode Description: “It’s Egg-cellent.” Guy starts off the games by handing the chefs his unusual Grocery List and they scramble to make their best egg dish. In the second game, the chefs struggle to figure out how to make a dinner party for four with less than $8. It all comes down to improvising when Guy swaps the shopping bags of the final two chefs: With up to $20,000 on the line, which chef will make the best gourmet lunch?
For Gianluca “Luca” Paris, Guy's Grocer Games could have been his ticket to reality star fame. After winning $14,000 on the show, the Food Network recruitedParis, owner of Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe in Keene, for Cutthroat Kitchen. But he refused to apply because the show encourages chefs to sabotage each other’s ingredients and supplies to win.
Guy’s Grocery Games, unlike much of reality TV, is more genial. On the show, Paris beat a Los Angeles chef and a classically trained French chef for the top spot. He says the experience taught him a lot about himself and cooking. “I’ve always known I could trust my instinct as far as flavor, creativity and putting things together, but I got to prove to myself that I can do it under pressure,” he says.
Within a month of sending the initial application email, (followed by phone interviews, more applications and a video) he was on his way to California for a whirlwind 26-hour trip to tape the show. “It came to a point where we were competing against each other but all liked each other, so no one ever felt like we wanted to backstab each other.”
Paris says he was surprised they didn’t show him helping a competitor by giving him advice and helping him plate his food, which isn’t allowed. It did show his apologies toward Stefan in the final round after he and Stefan’s bags were switched to make sandwiches (and Stefan’s bag had a better selection of items).
Round one required chefs to make their best egg dish using a shopping list of seven items. For this challenge Paris modified a duck appetizer that he uses at his cafe. After Paris won the final cooking round he had two minutes to find 10 items, each worth $2,000. He missed three items, including powdered sugar that he passed at least twice. The grocery store used in the show was Fields Market in West Hills, Calif., which was closed for a few weeks while filming Season 1. Later seasons used a recreated supermarket built on the set in a warehouse.
Being on the show helped his business. “This is one of the best years ever in terms of sales, notoriety and for what I do for a living along with the restaurant,” he says. Now Paris has a full-time agent, is working on a cookbook, has appeared at many food events such as Atlantic City Food & Wine Show, and was named the Chef of the Year by the NH Lodging and Restaurant Association.
Gusanoz in Lebanon
Show: Restaurant Impossible
Network: Food Channel
Original Air Date: Aug. 29, 2012
Episode Description: “This special episode dishes out real-time trivia about Chef Robert Irvine and behind the scenes stories as Robert helps husband and wife team Nick and Maria save their 6-year-old Mexican restaurant, Gusanoz. Locals flocked to Gusanoz to taste Maria’s authentic Mexican food, but growing pains got the best of the restaurant, which suffered in food and operations quality, leaving a huge, expensive mess for Robert to clean up. Can Robert and his team give Gusanoz a new life—and Maria a renewed passion for her business?”
Maria and Nick Yager enjoyed varying degrees of success after opening Gusanoz, a Mexican restaurant in Lebanon, in 2005 with a $20,000 investment—an investment they recouped within the first year. But two additional ventures, a second Mexican restaurant and a taqueria and ice cream shop failed, and the couple found themselves $500,000 in debt when those closed.
“Once we closed our other locations and focused on the one, we realized how much work we had to do. We were big fans of the show [Restaurant Impossible] and I talked to Maria about putting in an application,” says Owner Nick Yager.
Rescue by reality TV, though, comes at a price. They were accepted in early 2012 and later told that the filming would be on the restaurant’s busiest time of the year—Cinco de Mayo. “It would be big commitment to shut down May 4 and not open until the evening of May 5. We came to the conclusion we really couldn’t pass up this opportunity to get national exposure,” Yager says.
Yager says what viewers saw was what happened during the three days of shooting. While some restaurants get beat up for food quality, the critique of Gusanoz’s was relatively tame. Irvine and his executive chef did work with the couple to create some new dishes, and the couple has since reached out to the chef for his advice.
Not all patrons appreciated the makeover. Some regulars disliked the new layout and lighting, and sales actually dropped for a couple of months after the show aired. The couple dimmed the lighting and added some original items back. “People like the authentic Mexican food we offered and didn’t like the chefed up version,” Yager days. They do have many menu items from the show, but 60 to 70 percent of the menu is pre-show. The owners did heed Irvine’s advice to reduce labor costs significantly.
Yager says he has no regrets. “The best part of doing the show was getting Maria and myself reinvigorated and our staff as well,” he says, adding they learned several important lessons from the show. “We were working too hard to please everybody. We tried to keep employees we shouldn’t have kept on. We were trying to hold on to too many menu items and offer the things we wanted to offer even if they didn’t work.”
The show has not led to a huge sales boost, though the restaurant has paid off most vendors or created payment plans. Gusanoz is also readying to bottle its hot sauces to sell through retail and wholesale channels. And every time the show repeats, the restaurant sees “a little boost.”
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Yager says. Asked if he would do it again, he enthusiastically replies, “Absolutely.”
Inn at Danbury and the Alphorn Bistro in Danbury
Show: Wife Swap
Original Air Date: March 12, 2008
Episode Description: The Graf Family runs an inn where the children pitch in and help out. The Medicis are an Italian family in Long Island where the mother caters to the needs of her body-building older son and angry younger son. Lisa Medici tries to get the Grafs to slack off while Alex Graf tries to instill a work ethic in the Medicis.
When the Graf and Medici mothers swapped lives in a 2008 episode of Wife Swap, it was billed as a swap between a strict disciplinarian and a doting mom. Seven years later, a lot has changed in the lives of the Graf family, former owners of the Alphorn Bistro at The Inn at Danbury in Danbury, but one thing has not: Alexandra Graf, the disciplinarian, says hard work continues to pay off.
In the summer of 2008, a fire destroyed the family home, which was attached to the undamaged inn and restaurant. Unable to bounce back from that loss, the inn and restaurant eventually closed in 2011. Alexandra and Bob Graf now spend most of the year traveling and running Schnitzels & Giggles, a mobile German-food concession stand.
“I do believe in a strong work ethic. It’s how I was raised. Discipline works,” says Graf. “But not the way it was shown on Wife Swap. That wasn’t true.” The show portrayed their three youngest children (the fourth was grown) cleaning toilets and serving as maids and waitresses many hours a day. Graf stresses that was not the case. The kids worked a few days a week after school and helped on weekends, but were paid. Adds husband Bob, the former chef of the German restaurant, “They wanted to make it seem like all the kids did was work. They wanted them to wear their restaurant uniforms in the house, which we don’t do.”
The Grafs children now have their own lives, two in the military and two who attend college. One who attends college is traveling with the food cart.
The Grafs applied to be on the show after Wife Swap put out a call for bed and breakfast establishments where the owners and kids worked. Graf admits the money, $20,000, along with the exposure, was helpful. “We got a lot of new business because of the show, and there would be spikes whenever they did reruns,” she says.
Both Grafs also had a lot to say about the “reality” aspect of the show. Bob Graf recalls the producers pulling Lisa Medici aside because she was too docile and said so little. So Bob talked to her and encouraged her to speak her mind. Alex Graf had greater concerns. She says her privacy was not respected to the point she felt uncomfortable in the Medici home and requested a hotel room; she instead received a lock on her door.