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Do reality TV contests pay off for restaurants even if they lose?

Recently, there was a lot of excitement in Orange County because local bistro Little Sparrow was featured in the Feb. 25 episode of Bravo's "Best New Restaurant." Although the 42-seat Santa Ana restaurant didn't make it to the semifinals, it still got an hour's worth of praise from celebrity judge Tom Colicchio -- and that coast-to-coast exposure indeed translated into patrons.

They've had to hire more servers because sales are up to record levels. New fans are flocking to Little Sparrow's social media pages. New diners seem universally thrilled to get a table.

"Will they come back?" wonders owner Bruce Marsh. "I don't know how long this will last."

No one's complaining about the quick bump in the numbers, but investments have been made that won't pay off if the restaurant's popularity doesn't continue -- and nobody knows for sure if it will.

A reporter from the Orange County Register decided to find out whether other local restaurants and chefs have seen long-term, positive effects from a stint on reality TV. Some won contests, some didn't win, and others were featured on shows:

  • Casey's Cupcakes: 2011 winner of the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars"
  • Chomp Chomp Nation: Featured on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" in 2013
  • Shirley Chung: 2014 finalist on "Top Chef"
  • Jamie Gwen: 2014 winner of "Cutthroat Kitchen"
  • The Lime Truck: 2011 winner of the Food Network's "Great Food Truck Race"
  • Slater's 50/50: Featured on the Travel Channel in November 2010

The great news is that all six of them report tremendous income growth initially, and they've all kept it up -- if not at their original restaurants.

The owners of the food truck known as Chomp Chomp Nation actually closed down the truck over a year ago. Why? The show was such a springboard for them that they expanded their catering and consulting business and got at least one exclusive catering deal with a high-profile client.

The owner of Slater's 50/50 says that his exposure on the show was "equivalent to winning the lottery," and he used the profits to open two more restaurants.

The upshot is this: While reality TV may have its intrapersonal and emotional downsides, it can suddenly thrust even a tiny local business into the limelight -- and into long-term success. If your business is approached, however, you owe it to yourself to have your attorney review the contract.

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