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How giving food away saved a Maine restaurant

Laura Benedict thought she’d have to shut down The Red Barn. Then she had an idea that turned into a saving grace.

Laura Benedict shares a laugh with a customer on the lawn behind The Red Barn during a benefit for a local girls gymnastics team.
winky lewis for the boston globe
Laura Benedict shares a laugh with a customer on the lawn behind The Red Barn during a benefit for a local girls gymnastics team.

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ON A SUNSHINY AFTERNOON last spring, folks line up 30 deep outside The Red Barn, an iconic restaurant in Augusta, Maine, along US Route 201, which connects the state capital to the countryside. Inside the kitchen, a burger, hot dog, or haddock fillet hits the grill every six seconds. Customers’ names blare over the loudspeaker as trays heaped with fried seafood and sandwiches slide across the takeout counter. “Right here, Joe! Finn! Dory, you can pick up at the window. Ron, your food is ready.”

As the sing-song list wafts over the parking lot along with the salty smell of french fries, The Red Barn’s owner and self-proclaimed “chicken joint gal,” Laura Benedict, winds through the throngs, blond bangs peeking out from her purple baseball cap. At the outdoor pickup window, she hugs an elderly man. “How you doing, handsome?” she asks.

“Older than dirt,” he says, and laughs. Hundreds of other diners are gathered around oversized picnic tables as children toss Frisbees and play cornhole at what resembles a giant family picnic. Across the lawn, green as a golf course, an Elvis impersonator croons from a bandstand that used to be a flatbed trailer. Nearby, gymnasts in sparkly leotards fly through the air, landing flips and handsprings. They’re from the Waterville YMCA Gymnastics Team, and they are the main attraction this night, a Red Barn fund-raiser for their team. Business is so brisk that volunteers direct traffic and a flag-draped all-terrain vehicle shuttles passengers from two packed parking lots and a 5-acre field reserved for overflow parking. The event will pull in $4,000 for the YMCA team.

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It’s hard to imagine that back in 2009 Benedict thought she was going to have to close the restaurant. At the time, she had substantial debt thanks to the Great Recession and some personal struggles. She’d written so many bad checks that suppliers wouldn’t deliver unless she paid cash. One weekend that November, she realized she didn’t have enough money to pay her employees, or to buy food for them to cook and serve. “I owed purveyors thousands,” Benedict says. “I wasn’t taking a paycheck. We should have been closed.” The telephone company had disconnected her home phone just that morning, right after she’d called her employees, telling them to stay home. She drove to work anyway. Then a driver made a delivery of fresh haddock and chicken and frozen fries through the front door and left without making her pay upfront. She got an idea.

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On Mondays, The Red Barn was normally closed, but that Monday Benedict reopened it. She had rearranged the letters on the restaurant’s signboard. “Free food,” it read. “Donations only.” For the first time in her memory, diners lined up out the door of her 40-seat restaurant. Benedict suggested a $5 donation in exchange for a generous mound of golden-crusted haddock or chicken strips, with proceeds to help a nearby Catholic school, St. Michael’s, raise money for a school trip. Instead of her regular cashiers, middle school students in parochial plaid took orders, bused tables, and wove through the crowd, collecting money. True, some customers gave nothing, and some just the suggested $5. But some gave 10 times that, Benedict recalls. At the end of the night, the school took away several thousand dollars and Benedict found she had hundreds of new customers. “Now it sounds genius, but then it was an act of desperation,” Benedict says. What she remembers thinking is, How can I do this again?

It’s a sign of her state of being at the time that Benedict, who is now 52, doesn’t quite remember what happened next and has answered that question differently in interviews over the years. At first she tells me, via Facebook message, that there was some money left over from the benefit, which she used to open the restaurant the next day. She later corrects herself, saying she borrowed money from a brother-in-law to keep the restaurant open and bargained with suppliers for more time to pay her bills. Finally she says, “I don’t remember exactly what I did.” Benedict and those who know her say she was not keeping good track of the money the restaurant made, prone to stashing cash in paper envelopes marked with the names of suppliers, which she left sitting in her office. But she also admits that she made promises she couldn’t keep. “Let me tell ya, desperation makes you do things you aren’t necessarily very proud of.”

Laura Benedict regularly supports veterans’ groups, and individual veterans often give her pins and medals.
winky lewis for the boston globe
Laura Benedict regularly supports veterans’ groups, and individual veterans often give her pins and medals.

What is certain is that The Red Barn was able to keep going, and it started hosting regular benefits. In the beginning, employees (at the time, mostly family and friends) donated their time for these, and Benedict says she kept just enough of the proceeds to cover her food costs. Now for the dozen or so fund-raisers she hosts per year, she pays her kitchen staff and splits the proceeds 50-50 with the night’s beneficiaries. She also lets them keep all of the tips, which she says can reach into the thousands. Remarkably, as Benedict gave away money, she also started to make it. Each fund-raiser filled the dining room’s 40 seats, and some customers even bought food to go.

As word of The Red Barn’s generosity spread, so did its reputation for good food and friendly service. Within a couple of years, the restaurant’s revenue had doubled. “I didn’t even get to smell it,” Benedict says of the money, which went to pay off bills and keep the restaurant going. It helped that her suppliers kept extending her credit. And then they donated cases of chicken, bags of breading, and other goods to help the restaurant hold more fund-raisers.

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They were willing to help, says Dana Wren, a sales representative for Dennis Paper & Food Service, because Benedict is “a fantastic person. She just has the warmest heart of anyone I know. She wanted to do the right thing by people and, fortunately for her, people reciprocated.” Last summer, the letters on The Red Barn’s sign announced that more than $500,000 had been raised for local charities in 2016–2017.

IF YOU’RE FROM THIS PART of Maine, chances are good that you’ve run into a Benedict. Laura Benedict is the second-youngest of 10 children who grew up in a rustic three-bedroom Maine “camp” on Silver Lake, about 7 miles outside of Augusta. Their father sold insurance and real estate, then started the old Augusta Seafood market less than 2 miles down the street, where the children, including Laura, often helped. Many people knew the family’s story and its struggles to make ends meet. When her father started drinking, things got worse.

She was 11 in 1977 when her brother Bobby, then 24, launched The Red Barn in a former cow barn turned dairy bar, frying up seafood with a breading recipe he’d picked up at a local drive-in diner. Their brother Jimmy, who is five years older than Laura, took over in 1982, and Laura started working for him after school. She dropped out of nearby Thomas College in 1986, when she ran out of money, and used her 1969 Holiday Manor trailer home as collateral to get a loan to buy the restaurant.

Benedict is not a natural at running a business. She’s veered dangerously close to bankruptcy multiple times. She’s had more than one car repossessed (at one point she rode her bicycle 17 miles to and from work) and had her mobile home dragged off its blocks by repossessors (she couch-surfed with friends and family members, cleaning in exchange for a place to stay). In the early 2000s, her brother Peter, now 53, left his job managing a Bangor seafood restaurant to manage hers. “The food was good, but no one had a handle on what was going on behind the counter,” says Peter, who continues to manage the restaurant. Even with his help, Benedict, who was sinking in personal debt, often borrowed money from family and friends to make payroll. Eventually, it became substantial amounts of money. Then the Great Recession hit.

Laura Benedict (left) and her sister Julie at The Red Barn restaurant.
winky lewis for the boston globe
Laura Benedict (left) and her sister Julie at The Red Barn restaurant.

Benedict says it took her three years after that first fund-raiser for the Catholic school trip to repay all her debts. In the nine years since, she’s supported charities and local organizations, many of which benefit veterans and the elderly, who are among her most loyal customers. But she also has helped a local police chief who broke his neck in a motorcycle accident, children who need new hearts and kidneys, and families who have been burned out of their homes. “I know what it’s like to wonder how you are going to pay the bills,” she says.

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To handle the crowds, in 2010 the Benedicts doubled the size of the dining room, which now seats 80. Picnic tables and lawn chairs can seat hundreds more. Sometimes it gets boisterous; Benedict was fined $200 by the city last year after neighbors complained about excessive noise from the free concerts she’d begun holding on the restaurant’s lawn. The Red Barn gets inundated with requests for help, including e-mails, letters, and phone calls from folks requesting heating assistance and help repairing broken vehicles. Benedict often responds personally, filling oil tanks, paying property taxes, even dropping off money at local schools to pay students’ overdue lunch bills. For formal benefits at the restaurant, she has set up an online application process. Each spring, Benedict and two helpers begin sifting through the requests, deciding which to support for the upcoming season. “The hardest part is saying no,” Benedict says.

In 2013, Benedict’s generosity caught the attention of the state attorney general, who sent her a notice to stop giving away so much money or register as a charity. When Benedict posted the letter on social media, news outlets around the state picked up the story, and supporters flooded Facebook with comments praising her efforts. The crowds at The Red Barn got bigger. Benedict launched a nonprofit foundation, The Red Barn Cares, to distribute donations. But after the state Legislature passed the so-called “Red Barn Bill,” which allows Maine businesses to solicit money for charities and people in need without having to register as charities themselves, she let the foundation dissolve in 2016. The restaurant now gives recipients a check at the end of each night’s benefit, which Benedict says allows her to respond to community needs faster while maintaining a personal touch.

She has had her setbacks: Just as the family business was prospering, Benedict’s personal life spun out of control. After her mother died in 2011, Benedict, who is divorced and has no children, says she again began spending money she didn’t have. To escape her financial pressures and the shame that went with them, Benedict turned to alcohol. She’d struggled with depression in the early 2000s, even spending time in a care facility, while putting on a smile for customers. In December 2014, Benedict posted on her Facebook page that she was checking into an alcohol rehab facility. At the center, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Less than a week later, she checked herself out against her doctor’s advice and returned to work. (She says now she should have stayed longer to receive more support.) 

In response, her customers rallied around her and the restaurant. Benedict says she feels as indebted to her friends, family, and community as they do to her. “It is the good will paying the bills,” she says. Charity has earned her loyalty, awards such as the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Neighbor Award (she used the $10,000 check to buy heating oil for some area residents), and crowds. A map in the dining room shows hundreds of pins placed by diners from all over the world. On a typical summer day, Benedict’s crew serves 100 pounds of fresh-shucked clams, 500 pounds of haddock, and 700 pounds of chicken, and ladles out 80 gallons of seafood stew. Forty staff members fill the restaurant’s two kitchens — up from 10 employees a decade ago. Many are relatives. Right now two of Benedict’s brothers, four nieces and nephews, and two grandnephews work here. One of her sisters packs and ships up to 1,000 quarts of Benedict’s signature seafood stew around the country each month. Business is so good, Benedict is thinking of expanding again.

People come “because of the family — they’re very charitable,” says retiree Maureen Manekas, who lives a few miles away with her husband, George. “Every time we have company, we bring them here. They insist on coming.”

“It’s actually for the food,” George counters. “It is the best seafood around anywhere.”

Meadow Rue Merrill is a journalist and author in midcoast Maine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.