It was a sultry late-June evening, the kind where the clouds overhead seem to hold in the heat instead of cooling it down, but the picturesque scene in downtown Searcy that Friday could still take your breath away. Thousands filled the town square for the monthly Beats & Eats, one of the two big things happening that night. Everywhere was the taut anticipation of people fitting in a few more fun stops before the main event. A brightly lit stage anchored one end of the festival, just to the side of the 1871-built White County Courthouse and was offset behind by the neon lights of the renovated Rialto movie theater. Above the stage, a giant American flag billowed 40 feet in the air.
Everything about the scene said this is small-town America at its finest. Searcy was pulling out the stops for the other big thing happening that evening — filming the season finale of Small Business Revolution: Main Street, an acclaimed reality show produced by Deluxe Corporation, featuring small business transformations in one city per season. To earn the privilege of being Season Four’s sole focus, with a $500,000 investment in the city from the show and eight episodes dramatizing the city’s positive momentum, Searcy had beat out more than 12,000 other applicants nationwide. Season Four of Small Business Revolution will premiere Oct. 8 on Hulu and stream free on smallbusinessrevolution.org, YouTube and later this fall on Amazon Prime.
Community pride was in the air. Dozens of people sported matching #mySearcy T-shirts proclaiming
“United We Stand.” Middle-aged parents cooling with cardboard hand-fans from a local realtor’s booth staked out places on the low rise of grass in front of the old courthouse, lawn chairs angled toward the stage. Young kids sat on their dads’ shoulders, craning necks over the expanse of people, while teens grabbed their friends and moved through the crowds for a spot closer to the front, maybe by the cameras. Searcy promotional banners, brochures and merchandise abounded. People were excited to be living here.
As darkness settled in, Small Business Revolution hosts, Amanda Brinkman of Deluxe Corporation and Ty Pennington (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), finally took the stage. They made some exciting announcements to thunderous cheering — watch the show to learn what those were — and talked about their positive experiences in town. Brinkman recognized Searcy’s efforts to embrace its strengths and open itself to new ideas and initiatives, and she thanked the entire Searcy community for their overwhelming welcome. She especially thanked the show’s official “town reps,” Amy Burton of Main Street Searcy and Mat Faulkner of Think Idea Studio, who helped rally and shepherd the city through the process in what quickly became full-time jobs.
Looking around at the expanse of festivities, witnessing the collective excitement and pride on display,
it was striking to realize how much Searcy had already gained from this experience. The residents had rallied together like never before to make this happen. Six winning small business owners profiled on the show had their lives and livelihoods transformed and were sharing their lessons learned with the broader small business community. The city had gained expert business and marketing guidance and had begun to articulate what kind of future it wants to embrace. And the show kick-started momentum that leaders hope to sustain long after the film crew has left.
The click of destiny
The funny thing is, this whole cascade of positivity can be traced back to a single Facebook post that nine months earlier Mat Faulkner happened to click.
“The name is what caught my attention,” Faulkner said in an interview with Arkansas Living a few weeks after the finale was filmed. “Back in October, I saw the words Small Business Revolution as I was scrolling through Facebook and thought, ‘Wait, what’s that?’ I have a small business and work with others through the Chamber, so I was intrigued.”
After watching the videos, clips from SBR’s third season, Faulkner noticed the deadline for communities to apply to be the focus of Season Four was in two weeks. He figured it was a long shot to say the least, but Faulkner filled out the application without announcing to anyone he was doing it and sent it in. “I tried to be honest about Searcy,” he said. “We’d been dragging in economic growth for the past decade, but we did have some positive momentum in terms of revitalization downtown and integrating public art spaces and starting new community events.”
Planning to win
Things moved fast. Just before Thanksgiving, Faulkner heard from the show. Out of more than 12,000
applications from small towns in the United States, Searcy had made the top 20 finalists. “That was when we really got to work. We put together a marketing plan and started getting community leaders on board to help win this thing.” At a watch party in late December, Searcy learned it was in the top 10. In January, the producers came for a site visit to decide on the shortlist, the few who would make it to a public vote for the winner. Thousands showed up to welcome them and show their enthusiasm.
“We didn’t know if we’d make the final list, but we began proceeding as if we were, enacting a social media and marketing plan right away,” Faulkner explained. “We knew we were going to need many more votes than were in this community alone, so we had a statewide and nationwide outreach campaign. We had to get started.”
Small Business Revolution is produced by Minneapolis-based Deluxe Corporation, a 104-year-old, publicly traded Fortune 1000 company. Cameron Potts, Deluxe’s vice president of public relations and communications, said most people are familiar with Deluxe from re-ordering checks; the company invented the checkbook. Today, although it is still entrenched in the checkbook industry, Deluxe has diversified to extend marketing and financial expertise to the nation’s business community.
“A lot of the applications [for the show]we get are from communities that need rescuing after major manufacturers have left,” Potts explained. “What Searcy understood is that we’re looking for communities that already have some positive growth happening, where we can really make a difference.”
In early spring when Small Business Revolution announced the final six communities, Searcy was in
the mix. The community was fully engaged, sharing social media posts with the voting link and urging everyone they knew to vote daily. Carlos Frogoso said his mother, Whilma Frogoso, who owns Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant and would eventually become one of the season’s most beloved characters, called him at work in Texas daily to make sure he and all his friends were voting. “Every single day. I’d tell her, ‘Yes, Mom, I voted, we all did, but I can’t talk now, I’m at work,” he said with a laugh.
During the days of public voting, Searcy consistently led in the daily leaderboards — until the next to last day. “We suddenly fell into second place,” Faulkner said. “That was a gut punch, but kicked us into high gear.” He said Searcy’s website linking to the vote had more traffic in those final 24 hours than in the entire preceding week combined.
The final results were to be announced live online, so Searcy’s townspeople filled the Benson Auditorium at Harding University for a final watch party. Meanwhile, Small Business Revolution’s film crew had sneaked into the building backstage, posing as a local news crew. “No one there knew we’d won until suddenly Amanda Brinkman and a film crew walked on stage,” Faulkner said, a grin in his voice. “Then the entire place just erupted with cheers, and we screamed for 10 minutes, everyone going crazy that we’d done it.”
Ten thousand people attended the season’s kick-off event in March. This community was officially all-in on promoting their city.
The final six (spoiler alert)
Besides eight episodes of televised focus on Searcy, the $500,000 SBR prize includes $250,000 of construction, design and equipment and an equal amount of in-kind marketing expertise, mentoring and collateral materials. Most of the money and mentoring goes directly into the six winning small businesses, selected by producers after hundreds of Searcy businesses had applied. Each of the six businesses gets featured in its own 25-minute episode.
The final six businesses selected were ARganic Woodwork, El Mercado supermarket, Nooma yoga studio, Savor & Sip coffee shop, Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant and — the show’s first nonprofit — Zion Climbing Center.
Real American stories
Besides making delicious Filipino food, Whilma Frogoso has a kind, open face, a hesitant, gentle voice and smiling eyes that win people over in seconds. She and her family immigrated to the United States in 2006, and she bought the restaurant in 2009. After 10 years of owning the restaurant (eight of which she took no days off), she was on the brink of selling the family-owned business when she applied for the show.
Small Business Revolution’s team helped the Frogosos turn the restaurant around through renovations
and redesign, fresh branding, restaurant management mentoring, and shining a spotlight on her American story and the authentic (and now popular) Filipino food the restaurant serves. Meanwhile, Carlos, her eldest son, has moved back to Searcy to help his mother and siblings with the business.
“From the very beginning, Mom and I started it,” Carlos said. “I would come here after school; Mom would go to her other job. We’d switch out. Sometimes I’d miss classes because Mom couldn’t work. So, it’s my baby, too. Knowing that she was about to sell the business, I kept fighting not to give in, but financially, I couldn’t help the business myself.
“Now, because of Deluxe and Small Business Revolution, instead of selling it, she wants to pass it on to us. And maybe we can pass it on to our children, too. Maybe we can even expand, and either build another business or open another restaurant.”
Whilma said one of her favorite parts of the experience was being paired with mentor Ann Kim, a Korean immigrant who owns several successful Minneapolis restaurants and earlier this year won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. “She understood what it’s like to be an Asian woman running a restaurant here. She knows so much, and she was so helpful,” Whilma said, beaming.
Getting to the next level
One thing Potts said Small Business Revolution wanted to highlight this season is businesses needing a boost to the next level. When Coty Skinner applied for his new woodworking business, ARganic Woodwork, to be on the show, he was working part time out of the garage. Now, he has a proper commercial shop and a better ability to fulfill his customers’ orders.
On the other end of the spectrum, Nooma, yoga studio was already taking off and had three locations
in Arkansas (Searcy, Little Rock and Rogers). Co-owners and founders Casey Cox and Nicole Hopkins said there wasn’t as much physical construction and redesign to do at their studio as some places, but they needed help managing the growth while keeping quality high and operations smooth. “It’s been an emotional journey. We made the decision from the start that we had to be totally honest and open about where we were struggling, even on TV,” Cox said.
Matt Naylor of Flow Nonfiction, a video production company from Austin, Texas, was the show’s director. Naylor said that unlike many reality shows, on Small Business Revolution there is no manufacturing conflict or creating those famous reality show villains.
“We didn’t want to make anything that mocked anyone, or that artificially created drama or controversy. We just want to help,” he explained. “The antagonist, the villain for all of this, is how hard it is to make a small business work. There’s plenty of drama there already for small business owners. It’s always an uphill climb.”
To the future and beyond
Expect the energy in Searcy to continue. Already the city has adopted the show’s branding to create an extensive “Be the Revolution” campaign as a rallying cry to its citizens.
The carryover effect of the show is real, Naylor said, citing sustained, measurable growth a year later in every town Small Business Revolution has showcased: “There’s this energy that builds when the town’s trying to win the vote, and that’s really what carries over after the show leaves. The business owners are more connected to each other, the town is more connected to itself, property values rise.”
Faulkner said the city plans to build on and share the lessons learned from the experts and channel that energy toward further progress. “We’re discovering a better way to tell those stories [of Searcy’s unique businesses], to draw visitors to other places worth experiencing around town,” he said, continuing, “It’s the relationships that make the difference in any small town. You’ve got to connect to each other.”
Faulkner had a message, too, for the rest of Arkansas. “I’d love to tell the state, ‘Thank you. Thank you for the overwhelming support. We could not have won this very competitive competition without it being a statewide effort. And now that you’ve helped us win, come see us. Make a road trip to Searcy, and come get to know the people you supported. We’ll welcome you as friends.’”