Half a year after six Searcy shops were featured on a television program that conducts $500,000 in major makeovers, the COVID-19 virus struck the country, changing consumer habits and putting businesses into stressful survival situations.
But five of the six Searcy business owners persevered through a year of struggles, using the tactics they learned while filming the program. They also realized the galvanizing support of the diverse White County town of 24,000. The sixth business, a coffee shop, had to close after COVID protocols prevented or limited customers from dining and drinking inside restaurants.
Searcy almost didn’t win the makeover by Deluxe Corporation’s Small Business Revolution — Main Street program. The company held an online contest in the fall of 2018, and on the last day of voting, Searcy was in second place. A last-minute, organized push by local leaders gave the town the edge, beating out the five other finalists of Camas, Wash.; Canon City, Colo.; Corsicana, Texas; Durant, Okla.; and Washington, N.C.
Mathew Faulkner, president of Think Idea Studio in Searcy, spearheaded the drive to get Searcy on the television program.
“When we applied for the show, we emphasized the positive things Searcy has been doing for years,” he said. “We had an ongoing downtown beautification project and a lot of arts projects. We realized the challenges and thought the show could help.”
The Small Business Revolution program has been shown on Hulu television for four years. The premise is simple, but lasting: Show hosts Ty Pennington and Amanda Brinkman visit a chosen town and give businesses $500,000 to help them grow. The businesses may receive structural makeovers, but they also are given information about developing aggressive business plans, creating more of a digital image online and building lasting strategies to continue economic growth. Previous cities that won the makeovers include Wabash, Ind.; Bristol Borough, Pa.; and Alton, Ill.
The show announced Searcy had won during an early 2019 watch party in Benson Auditorium on the Harding University campus that was shown live on Facebook. When Searcy was selected, the Benson Auditorium audience cheered for nine minutes, said Searcy Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Buck Layne.
“It was like a basketball game,” he said of the ovation. “It was a very exciting time.”
Pennington, a former host of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition series, and Brinkman immediately began shooting for the program.
“Ty was a ball of energy,” Faulkner said. “It was a lot of fun. I felt fortunate being part of it. It’ll be a memory.”
There were eight episodes in the season. The first was an introduction to Searcy. Six episodes, each about 30 minutes in length, featured the six chosen businesses, and the final show wrapped up what business owners had learned.
“It was great publicity for Searcy and for Arkansas,” Layne said. “People who wouldn’t have known about Searcy reached out to find us.”
The Searcy businesses selected were Zion Rock Climbing, Savor and Sip Coffeehouse, Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant, ARganic Woodwork, El Mercado and Nooma Yoga Studio.
“There was huge awareness for our town,” Faulkner said. “It put Searcy on the map for recognition.
“Then, all of a sudden, here comes COVID. It took the wind out of our sails.”
For three months into 2020, Searcy was banking on the television exposure, creating public relations campaigns centered on the chosen businesses and showing newly created downtown parks and venues.
“When COVID came, all the attention shifted, as it should,” Faulkner said. “There was nothing a television show could do to impact that. Food services took the brunt of that.”
Savor and Sip Coffeehouse was forced to close. Coty Skinner, owner of ARganic Woodwork, also closed his furniture-making business and then opened a real estate company in his home.
“We had clientele from heavily populated areas like St. Louis and Memphis,” Skinner said of his woodworking business. “We had to go on furlough.”
He intended to hire workers who had lived in foster homes in White County and the surrounding area, and then “aged out” and moved, to help train them with job skills. Instead, when the virus hit, he put that idea on hold.
“We didn’t want to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t need you,’” Skinner said. “They’d been told that before. We didn’t want to do that again.”
Instead, Skinner tried to keep his business going by working 60 hours a week himself. It wasn’t a good plan, he realized.
“In June , I came to the conclusion there were easier ways to be broke,” he said. “Our business is people. COVID affected people.”
He began selling real estate. “I used a lot of what I learned from the show in my real estate business,” he said.
Carlos Frogoso, who operates Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant with his mother, said the television program gave the restaurant amazing exposure. He took calls from people across the country, including some in Seattle and Hawaii, who said they’d like to visit Searcy to try out their food.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle,” he said of closing the dine-in portion of the restaurant. “But the community has been very supportive.”
The restaurant remains open, either cooking for take-out orders or delivering food to customers. Frogoso said he hopes to reopen for indoor dining within a few months. The restaurant has been open for 12 years.
Frogoso said he learned from the show about giving Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant more of an online, digital presence. He also was instructed in pricing food items; Whilma always “wanted to make people happy” with food costs, he said, but he realized they also have to make a living.
Frogoso added that members of the show still call him to see how the restaurant is doing and to offer helpful suggestions.
“I don’t think we would have survived without the renovation program,” he said.
The eight-part show remains on the Small Business Revolution website, and people still watch it, Layne said. It continues to serve as a tool to attract visitors, new residents and prospective businesses. The programs can be viewed at www.smallbusinessrevolution.org/small-business-revolution/main-street/season-four/.
“How do we keep this going?” Layne asked, referring to the unified town spirit and momentum Searcy saw at the onset of the show. “We’ve got to get in the same frame of mind again. Once we get COVID behind us, I think we will come back strong.”