When Katherine Mitchell and her fiancé Jon Lanier moved to Pigeon Forge with no jobs and no idea of what their future would look like, little did they know that just three years later they would be talking to billionaire investor and star of Shark Tank, Mark Cuban, about how to put their store J.K. Lanier’s – and Pigeon Forge – on the map.
Or, as Mark Cuban referred to it, “Pigeon Fork” (video link below).
The story of J.K. Lanier’s General Store
“My fiancé and I moved here three years ago. This was always our favorite vacation destination. We moved here with no jobs,” Mitchell said.
“Jon has a master’s degree in business and I have a bachelor’s in general education. We quickly found that it’s very difficult to find a good paying job in our respective fields.”
For the first couple of years, the couple worked a number of odd jobs in the area at popular tourist hot spots including the Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg, Cades Cove Riding Stables and Big Rock Dude Ranch at the Ponderosa.
It was at Big Rock Dude Ranch that they met and befriended Becky and Rocky Ogle – a relationship that would transform their lives in ways they had never imagined.
The Ogles, who own Big Rock Dude Ranch, took the couple under their wing and provided them with the mentorship and guidance required to run a business in Sevier County.
“The Ogles allowed me to open a cafe and run it as my own business with very little overhead. She also leased an ATV rental and photo booth business to us as well,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell and Lanier were getting a feel for Pigeon Forge’s flourishing tourism business as newly anointed entrepreneurs when the shutdowns happened in March of 2020.
“We lost all the spring break business that we had expected, and we were relying heavily on that revenue to help us support the opening of the cafe,” said Mitchell.
“We were falling into the negative and unable to afford to run our business or pay our contractors without dipping into our savings. We applied for a small business loan, but by the time we received approval, it was too late for our business at the [cafe] and we had to walk away before going too far into debt.”
Even though it was too late for the cafe, Mitchell and her fiancé decided to put their small business loan to good use and open up a brand new business – a souvenir shop, J.K. Lanier’s, which opened in July of 2020.
Their new store features locally made old fashioned toys, soaps, furniture, fishing supplies, crafts, jams, honey, gourmet items and other locally made sundries. The store also features a small petting zoo (which will reopen in the spring), live music every Saturday and rocking chairs on the front porch, where they invite guests to sit and relax while enjoying an ice cold bottled soda.
J.K. Lanier’s also believes in supporting the local community and donates a portion of the company’s proceeds to the local fire department where Lanier currently serves as a volunteer lieutenant.
How Mitchell got an audience with Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban
As a new business owner, Mitchell is always on the lookout for clever ways to promote her new store with a minimal ad budget – which is how she stumbled across the opportunity to seek out the advice of Cuban.
“I came across a live video sponsored by Salesforce Live featuring an opportunity for small businesses to seek advice from billionaire entrepreneur, Mark Cuban. I look up to Mr. Cuban and the life that he has made for himself as a successful entrepreneur,” said Mitchell.
“I quickly signed up because I was very interested in what he had to say and how it would potentially help out small business. So I tweeted – ‘What advice do you have for a small business starting up amidst this pandemic?’”
Mitchell tuned in to the live Q&A with Cuban but had no expectations that her question would make the cut.
“I told myself, there’s no way they are going to read your question,” said Mitchell.
“They mentioned my Twitter handle and my head perked up. I was like, ‘Wow that’s me!’”
Mitchell was so shocked about her question being answered by Cuban she nearly missed the first part of his answer.
“I was scrambling around trying to figure out how I was going to record it … I was just in shock trying to process what I was hearing.”
Luckily for Mitchell, she was not only able to replay the video, but later reposted it to the Lanier General Store’s Facebook page for all to enjoy.
The video can be viewed below.
Mark Cuban’s insightful (and humorous) advice about running a souvenir shop in Pigeon Forge
While it is clear in the video that Cuban is unfamiliar with Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which happens to be home to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood and located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country with 12.5 million annual visitors, Mitchell found his advice both helpful and comforting.
“The first thing I would do is find an understanding of where your traffic to the store is coming from,” says Cuban in the video.
“Are there special days or special events in Pigeon Fork, what is Pigeon Fork known for … that’s first and foremost because when they come for the Pigeon Fork Christmas celebration or the Pigeon Fork pigeon event, where the pigeons get together and people come to see all the pigeons, you better be ready with your pigeon merchandise,” says Cuban with a grin.
“Part two is to get little takeaways when people come to your store and not buy something, or do buy something and have a great experience … It could be a postcard with a picture of a pigeon on it or whatever that represents your store and have an online solution with a store that they can buy from.”
“Be ready to sell when they walk in the door and give them a takeaway so that when they get back home if they are visiting wherever they happen to live and have a good feeling about your store – they have a way to buy online from you,” says Cuban.
“I think we just made Pigeon Forge a destination!” laughs the moderator.
Despite fumbling the name a bit, his advice was a thrill to Mitchell.
“I was thinking, this is awesome, because I am actually doing the takeaway advice that he gave me. I have a postcard with our store name and website that I slip into everybody’s bag when they’ve made a purchase so that they can remember our store, and if they like our product enough, they can simply contact us and I can ship it to them,” said Mitchell.
“I busted out laughing realizing he had no clue where Pigeon Forge, Tenn., was. I knew I had to post it on my Facebook page and get folks around here to start a movement to let Mark Cuban know who we are and why Pigeon Forge is such a popular destination.”
For anyone else out there who, like Cuban, has not yet heard of the area, Pigeon Forge is a booming tourist destination that produces over $1.5 billion in tourism revenue each year.
“Secretly, I was hoping that he would Google the area after the video out of curiosity to see who we are and how our national treasure, Dolly Parton, made this the loving and welcoming community that it is and that although the history is true about our town being named after pigeons, we don’t really celebrate the pigeons here or put them all over our souvenirs.”
But who knows, maybe they’ll make a comeback thanks to Cuban.
J.K. Laniers is located at 1382 Wears Valley Rd, Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The store is open daily from 10 am-6 pm weekdays, and 11 am-5 pm on Sundays. To learn more, visit their website at LanierGeneralStores.com.