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Reality TV is entrepreneurs' friend

By Wes Little, CNN
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Reality TV helps entrepreneurs
  • Reality TV may be an entrepreneur's best friend for promoting a business
  • "Top Chef's" Kevin Gillespie serves up dishes for a lot of fans at his restaurant
  • "The Apprentice" Kwame Jackson has his own luxury brand
  • Expert: Audience drawn to contestants with charisma, interesting personal story

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- A giddy fan of the TV reality show "Top Chef" greets Kevin Gillespie as they pose for a picture, "You should have definitely come in first!"

The scene is repeated many times during an evening at Woodfire Grill, a restaurant in Atlanta where Gillespie is co-owner and executive chef.

"Sometimes you can tell that that's definitely why they are here -- because of the show, because they want to be up front here and in a spot where they can stare directly at us," Gillespie says. "And other times I think we are drawing the same foodie crowd that we were building before I went on the show."

Gillespie made it to the finale of the last season of Bravo's televised cooking contest, where he finished third. On the reality show, the contestants lived together and all of their interactions were taped for the broadcast. After watching them all cook and comment through the various rounds, fans voted Gillespie their favorite chef.

Now fans can come to his real-life restaurant, where he is very accessible in his open kitchen, next to the eponymous grill. Seeing the chef can be as much of a draw as the award-winning cuisine.

Gillespie says, "I've seen everything from 'oh, that's him' to people actually walking into the walls, people hyperventilating, everything under the sun."

Although the restaurant is packed now, with reservations for prime dinner slots being booked many months in advance, business was tough before his "Top Chef" appearance.

"When we bought the restaurant in 2008, we lost a lot of business immediately from our previous owner. There were many days where we were wondering if we'd be able to keep the doors open," Gillespie says. "It was incredibly discouraging because we had all these dreams and goals of what we wanted to make with this restaurant and we knew that would never happen if we closed. So we had to keep fighting tooth and nail to fulfill these promises to ourselves and the community."

He admits that the show was a lifesaver. "It provided us with enough income and popularity that we had the opportunity to go forward and create exactly what we knew we could do."

And he's not the only one. In a tough economic environment for starting a business, other entrepreneurs have taken a novel path to success: reality TV.

"It's a great vehicle for showing that you have some talent, you have some skills, that people wouldn't normally get a chance to see," says Thomas Smith, a finance economist professor at Emory University. "So when you think about it from a marketability standpoint, this provides you with an immediate audience".

That's what Kwame Jackson was thinking when he appeared on NBC's "The Apprentice." "I never went on 'The Apprentice' as a chance to be a reality star."

"When I went on, I went to brand myself as an entrepreneur, to use the exposure from the NBC platform and Donald Trump's involvement to really hold my head up, be a gentleman, be a professional and hope that good things followed whether I won the show or not."

Since the show, Jackson has developed a luxury brand and line of apparel called Krimson by Kwame.

"We started the brand in response to my appearance on 'The Apprentice.' People liked the shirts and ties I wore on the show. So instead of going out and endorsing someone else's brand, I decided that there really isn't a professional brand that speaks to the generation X global professional."

So he started his own.

But there's more to post-reality TV business success than just being on a show.

"I think that recognition helps in opening doors and getting some people's attention, but you have to be able to deliver substance after. You have to be able to have a vision on what you want to achieve," Jackson says.

He adds, "Some people go into 'The Apprentice' or any other reality show with a different agenda. They want to be reality stars, they want to be on red carpets and use it as a platform into Hollywood. And God bless them. But I choose to be a different type of person and use it to leverage the entrepreneurial aspect."

Smith says any successful entrepreneur must have a certain star quality.

"The make or break isn't just being on the show. You have to have charisma, you have to have a story that people can grab onto or be familiar with. So just because I'm on a show doesn't make me popular," he says. "If you have enough charisma or magnetism, people are going to be drawn in."

He points to "American Idol" to illustrate his point.

"The winner isn't always the person who sells the most records. Actually, winning the show, there might be some sort of curse in that. Adam Lambert is a great example of that. He didn't win the show but he's making headlines and selling records not because he won or didn't win, but he's got something that people want to see."

Gillespie wasn't sure he was outrageous enough for the TV show.

"Reality television often caters to the extreme personalities. We only want to watch the people who are just on the edge of being complete sociopaths. I was worried going on 'Top Chef ' because I'm pretty level and I didn't think people would be slightly amused by that."

Obviously the viewers disagreed, and now they flock to Woodfire Grill. But Gillespie and his staff still have to deliver the goods on the plate.

CNN's Alicia Eakin contributed to this report