Inside the ‘Undercover Billionaire’ TV show filmed in Erie
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — When R.J. Messenger announced in a lengthy but cryptic social media post in late June that he was putting on hiatus Iron Empire Clothing, the successful apparel company he co-founded in 2014, to focus on a new venture, he was amazed how many rumors he started hearing about himself.
“I can reassure you that this is a good thing,” he wrote to followers on Facebook, “and mark my words, Underdog BBQ and Iron Empire, along with myself and a few others, will be putting Erie on the map like never before and give our city something to truly be proud of.”
A camera crew had been following Messenger and others around for weeks and all the commotion had started to raise eyebrows.
About a week later, when the Discovery Channel announced the premiere of a new reality show set in Erie, people started to connect the dots.
People like Erie businessman Pete Zaphiris, who owns the former Metropolitan dance club on West 13th Street, and who, without knowing exactly what was going on, allowed Discovery to use his building for filming.
“They have been in and out for two or three weeks over the last two months,” Zaphiris said. “To me, it’s good publicity for Erie. I just figured they could go ahead and use it if Erie could get a good plug.”
The Discovery Channel will launch the eight-part series “Undercover Billionaire” on Aug. 6 at 9 p.m. It follows mogul Glenn Stearns as he arrives in Erie with just $100 in his pocket and an old blue pickup truck. Stearns assumes a fake identity, Glenn Bryant, and sets out to create a $1 million business in just 90 days. Even the crew Stearns assembles is kept in the dark about his true identity until late in the series.
Stearns was not allowed to use any of his wealth or connections to create the million-dollar business. Stearns, according to the Discovery Channel, will put $1 million of his own money into the business if an independent financial evaluator assesses its value below $1 million — even if it is a penny short.
Dawn Van Scoter, a 37-year-old North East resident who owns Nine20 Furnishings & Design House and Mercantile 89, was contacted after a client passed on her phone number to the production company, This Is Just a Test. She was told only that she and others would be working with a man who planned to come to Erie to start his own business. She was a small business owner who did great work, they told her, and could give the man help and insight. She was intrigued.
“Helping other small business owners has always been important to me, so I was excited to be part of the project for that fact,” she said.
She heard nothing about the project in the months after that first meeting.
“All of a sudden I got an email and the project was moving forward,” Van Scoter said.
As filming moved forward early this year, Van Scoter said “felt like something was up, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“But I really truly hadn’t figured it out. I don’t know if I was that naive or that busy with the work I was tasked with.”
Van Scoter said viewers will see just how “shocked” she was when she learned that Glenn Bryant was actually billionaire Glenn Stearns.
“My face never lies,” she said. “It will show how surprised I was.”
That Underdog BBQ plays a central role in the show is absent from the promotional videos and press releases from the Discovery Channel.
“Certainly there’s a lot that I’m not ready to talk about yet,” Messenger said. “Obviously, people in our area are aware of Underdog BBQ opening, but they didn’t really know what it was. Now people are putting the two together. Obviously, they’re putting the puzzle pieces together, which we knew was going to happen.”
Underdog BBQ was among the vendors at Erie’s Wild Rib Cook Off & Music Festival held in Perry Square from May 29 to June 2. It won first place overall in the ribs for juniors category and tied for first place for best ribs overall.
The Erie County Health Department licensed the business to open at its 3040 West Lake Road location in Millcreek Township on June 4. It’s listed as being owned by Glenn Bryant Services, a limited liability company that was registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State on March 7.
“I would have had better luck hitting the lottery and winning $1 million dollars than this happening,” Messenger said. “That’s how I personally feel. Because, now, looking back at this whole thing, you’re talking about a guy like Glenn Stearns and a film crew, for some reason, out of every city in the entire country, they want to pick Erie, Pennsylvania. And then, on top of that, they want to come here and look around and choose me and a handful of other people to kind of use us to say, ’Hey listen, we have this idea, do you want to help this guy out? Do you want to give him a job at your store for a little bit?”
The show was filmed between March and June, said Tim Warren, executive producer and showrunner for the production company.
“Erie was chosen,” Warren said, “because it represented a hardworking American city that was dealing with economic difficulties yet rebuilding itself through small business.”
Nancy Daniels, Discovery’s chief brand officer, told Business Insider in 2018 that Stearns approached Discovery with the “idea of wanting to test himself.”
“Before I met him, I was suspicious,” Daniels told Business Insider, adding that he later convinced her he could pull it off.
In 1989, then 25-year-old Stearns formed Stearns Lending LLC, a mortgage company. Ernst & Young named Stearns its Entrepreneur of the Year in 2002, and by 2010 Stearns Lending had reached nearly $1 billion a month in funding, according to a biography of Stearns and other reports. Stearns, according to his website, believes that “adversities are an ideal foundation for success.”
He was born to alcoholic parents and grew up in a low-income suburb of Washington, D.C. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, failed fourth grade and became a father when he was 14. He graduated high school in the bottom 10 percent of his class.
“While some of his friends lost their lives to drugs and alcohol, and others spent time in prison, Glenn’s path intersected with mentors who gave him motivating examples of how to not meet the fate of his friends and instead take control his destiny,” the biography on his website says. “He took that life-changing encouragement and ran with it. Glenn became the first person in his family to attend college and graduated with a degree in economics from Towson University.”
In recent years, Stearns has battled throat cancer, which is now in remission, according to reports.
And he is no stranger to reality TV, having competed in and won “The Real Gilligan’s Island” in 2004 with his wife, Mindy.
Gannon University’s Small Business Development Centers, students and faculty assisted Stearns and his team with developing the business.
Maggie Horne, director of the SBDC, said she received a call a year and a half or two years ago.
“As far as we understood there was a gentleman who had been very successful in his career, had had a bout of cancer and, with having recovered from that, really had a new focus of wanting to be an integral part of entrepreneurial revival in a city that could really use it,” Horne said. “They were looking at several cities, and they chose Erie.”
Aside from being tailed by a camera crew, the SBDC treated Stearns as if he were any other client. They assisted him with the basics of starting a business, provided him with the other resources he needed and, as Stearns’ “vision began to grow,” served as a consultant for all of the “ins and outs.”
Students and faculty with the Gannon Beehive researched market conditions and trends and helped Stearns learn more about the industry.
“He was phenomenal to work with,” Horne, 54, said. “It was a real joy. That’s why we do what we do every day. You’re working with people exactly like Glenn was attempting to be, or pretending to be, at the very beginning stage of trying to become an entrepreneur. Throughout the whole time, that was my mindset, you know, ‘you haven’t done this, we’re going to help you.’ When I found out who he really was, I was thinking, ‘you needed none of my help at all.’”
Horne’s respect for Stearns grew when she learned his identity because he had worked so hard to learn from others to develop the business.
“He chose to go back and do all of the same things that it took to build his empire without needing to,” Horne said.
When news of the show dropped on July 2, Stearns tweeted, “So excited to announce the ‘special project’ I’ve been working on for the past few months. It’s been one of the most rewarding and challenging things I’ve ever done.”
“He is genuine,” Van Scoter said. “He is down to earth. You kind of know when you meet a certain type of person who has a certain air about them. He was not that way. He’s an amazing human and I am so blessed and privileged to have been able to work with him. He wanted to learn. He wanted to get his hands dirty.”
Jason Lavery of Lavery Brewing Co. said the show’s co-executive producer, Melinda Cea, approached him with the concept in March 2018. Lavery was not interviewed for “Undercover Billionaire” but, like Zaphiris, also welcomed the Discovery Channel crew to conduct interviews at the brewery.
The film crew visited on a Saturday, Lavery recalled. Stearns was doing a bar crawl that day, he said.
Underdog BBQ pours its own signature brew and also features taps from Lavery Brewing Co., The Brewerie At Union Station, Erie Brewing Co., TimberCreek Tap (Meadville/Grove City) and Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing.
“Back then we really didn’t understand what he was doing,” Lavery said. “How does a bar crawl affect your decision to start a business? Now it makes a lot more sense.”
Van Scoter, Messenger and others will fly to Los Angeles this week to take part in promotional events for the show.
“I’m very nervous about it,” Van Scoter said. “It’s one of those things that was the luck of the draw and you would never really expect to happen in your life. It’s very exciting.”
Staff writer Jim Martin contributed to this report.
The Discovery Channel series is set to premiere Aug. 6 at 9 p.m.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com