Laura Benedict of The Red Barn discusses how giving back turned her business (and life) around

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Laura Benedict, owner of The Red Barn seafood restaurant in Augusta, made headlines last year when the Office of Attorney General Janet Mills sent the restaurant a letter suggesting that the $635,000 in charitable donations the restaurant had given away was too much to give without the business being registered as a foundation. The letter, which turned out to be a mix-up of a sort, earned for Benedict and her charitable giving a great deal of attention in November and December of last year.

The Red Barn has since launched Red Barn Cares, a foundation through which the business will continue to run all of their fundraisers and related giving and help businesses looking to do contribute in similar ways. I was present at their launch last month, which also served as a fundraiser to pay for some of the crushing medical bills of Chris Lloyd. Lloyd, brother of Augusta Police Officer Eric Lloyd, is living with a rare liver disease. The fundraiser brought in several thousand dollars, at least $1,000 of which came out of Benedict’s own pocket in the form of a bid at a charity auction. Police officers, local citizens, bikers, and local and state elected officials alike were present. (Many thanks, by the way, to the anonymous attendee who helped jumpstart my dead car battery that night.)

Benedict comes from a poor, rough, working class background and her young adulthood was plagued with business troubles. When she was 8 years old she suffered a head injury so massive that her chances of survival were deemed miniscule. The medical bills from her costly stay put her already impoverished family further into debt. Over the course of several conversations she told me about her upbringing, her difficult foray into business ownership and how the Winter she was positive would be her last in the restaurant business turned out to be the season in which she reversed her own fate. Her efforts since have been responsible for raising over $650,000 for charitable gifts and support over the past 5 years.

I should note that while Benedict discusses a handful of sad and stories here, she rarely does so without a massive smile on her face. She has never failed to be the greatest of pleasures to spend time talking with and her attitude is infectious.

“WE DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE POOR.”

Tell me a bit about your childhood.

I am my father’s daughter. There are 10 of us and we all struggled. He wouldn’t give up and there is a certain nobility in that and I understand that. You’re not going to give up on your marriage, you’re not going to give up on your kids and if things are bad you’re going to get a third, fourth or fifth job. He opened an Augusta Seafood location right down the road. Augusta Seafood was a mom and pop store and Dad went from selling Prudential Insurance and being one of the best salesmen they ever had to selling homes to selling seafood. He was a born salesman. He had sharp wit and a kind disposition and he was relatable. My mom was very shy and behind the scenes with the children.

And then my dad fell on hard times.

When he was 28 and 29 years old Dad started to drink a little too much and then a lot too much and then everything started to go awful. The last five kids were on autopilot at that point and it became a time of absolute desperation. Powdered eggs and just trying to survive. At that point 40, 45 years ago they started to offer free and reduced lunch programs in schools and we were able to take advantage of that. It was a real struggle. The insidious disease of alcoholism effected all of us. It has ravaged this family on every single imaginable level. When that happens, on top of having too many mouths to feed and having a house that was falling apart, we had to just figure out how to survive. Just by hearing the rev of his engine coming home we could tell if it was going to be a good night or a bad night.

It was tough. It was really, really hard. Believe it or not, we didn’t know we were poor. I can’t imagine my life today without having gone through all of that, so I look at my life then and every oil delivery that never came because we couldn’t pay the bill and I can smile… You add onto that the fact that I had this traumatic brain injury that I absolutely should not have lived through… Add another $150,000 in bills onto that. It was the last thing my parents needed. I didn’t turn out brian damaged, mercifully, but the family was really hurt and set back by that, understandably.

“A WORLD OF HURT”

Laura began working with her father and brother Bobby at Augusta Seafood as a teenager in 1979. Bobby got sick of the business. The increased presence of  chain restaurants with big budgets were becoming difficult to compete with for the Benedict family. Laura remained in the business, finally buying what would become the Red Barn in 1986. Of the occasion she says, “I remember it. I stopped into Charlie’s with my attorney. I bought the last piece of lemon meringue pie and I was just so happy. I was a business owner at the age of 19 and I didn’t know that I was in for a world of hurt.”

You described your entry into the business as an owner as a “world of hurt.” What made it that way?

I was in trouble with the IRS for the first six weeks I was open. There was the Department of Sales Tax and CODs and I lost my house and I lost my car and I lost another car. I was taking a bike to work from a trailer park in Windsor, Maine and they yanked my trailer right off the blocks. I was communing from Windsor by bike to Augusta, 17 miles each way. That was in 1989. It has been an uphill battle. You just keep pounding and pounding like my father did. Had I grown up with a silver spoon, I likely would have given up in 1989 but I kept doing it, trying out breakfast selling breakfast, working 20 hours a day and leaving at 10 at night… I was rooming with people and sleeping on people’s couches. You know, that was tough. I went from that giddy little girl eating that piece of lemon meringue pie to bottom. I was still young — 22, 23 years old — I had this burden of Chapter 11, Chapter 7, Chapter 13 over my head and this family legacy I wanted to live up to. There were promises I couldn’t keep and I did things I wasn’t necessarily proud of that I have since made up for. I did anything I could to keep the doors open.

Hard work and a great product doesn’t always cut it anymore. We had that product, we had that great service, but then everything is on the bottom and another big budget restaurant opens and another big budget restaurant opens and you can’t keep up. You can’t compete with that. Then the BP oil spill occurs and all the oil on the shore and then the stock market crash. That was the big one. I knew I wasn’t going to stay open when that happened. I had a smile on my face, but I was going to go down. It was almost a relief to know that I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I found out that I do much better if I don’t have a choice. I just took everything I knew and I threw it out the window.

“IT WASN’T ABOUT COMPETITION FOR ME”

The winter months can be awful in the restaurant industry and on day in November of 2009, Benedict realized she didn’t have the money to pay for her food delivery. Things looked bleak for the  The Red Barn’s likelihood of survival. On a whim, she opened on a Monday and gave the food away to customers in exchange for a suggested $5 donation. Word spread immediately even though she did not advertise it. At that point, the restaurant’s Facebook presence boasted three followers (she now has over 25,000). After word of her still somewhat unexplainable food giveaway spread, more customers began to come in the door. She began to engage her Facebook audience in snow-bound trivia and she started to grow the Red Barn community online community. In no time she had 2,000 followers, which also helped to get new people in the door. These suggested donation dinners and her early sparks of active online engagement serve are the beginnings of the weekly Monday fundraisers and robust online presence that would come to define Laura and her restaurant.

How did your impromptu food give away eventually become the Monday fundraisers you hold?

I owed all of the distributors money, but I had the idea to do these fundraisers on Mondays. I got the food in the door and got some staff and volunteers to give their time and we offered the food for suggested donations for particular causes. Thousands of people started showing up because we built that community on Facebook. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. The first benefit was for the Gardiner Civil Rights Team. We raised about $1,800 that first event. It cost that amount to give the food away, but it got everybody talking and served as the best form of advertising.

Why did you initially give that food away when you were certain things were over for the restaurant?

I can’t remember why. Probably because it sounded so preposterous. It sounded like the most counterintuitive thing a person can do if they’re hemorrhaging cash and going out of business. That’s why I did it.

In 2009, I thought I had this tiny sliver of the pie and I thought that I had to fight for it. I did that in one way or another for 30 years. I thought I had to fight for that piece. I can understand why one would think that because “Sonofabitch another chain opened and this other place is giving away some deal I can’t afford to give away myself. How can I compete with that?” But see, that’s what I had to stop thinking. I can’t compete with that. It is not a battle you can win. But what you can do is smile, you can bring the community together and be a part of that community.

I didn’t know if it was going to pay off. I didn’t know if I was going to make anything, and I had no idea what was going to happen. But the community responded so positively and it became clear that this was something that had been missing. In doing all of this, my piece of the pie started to grow and then other businesses began to catch on and do charitable events as well. But it wasn’t about competition for me. I could have beaten myself up for not having come to this conclusion before 2009, as I could have saved thousands or maybe millions of dollars, but I wasn’t ready to accept it at the time. Rather than a piece of that pie, I wanted something different. I want to bring people together.

So that winter is when things started to turn around for you, the business, and your fundraising efforts.

Through that innovation, where our community was growing, I made it through that rough winter and I was able to pay off my purveyors over the Summer. I was finally spending so much on them that I was able to work out deals for the food I was offering at the charity events. The events were still, and remain, all volunteer efforts and so we were able to make it an ongoing thing.

Did you read the story that came out not long ago where a McDonalds’ was, in their words, having trouble with seniors “loitering” while drinking their coffee in the morning? When you venture into these community efforts, and you are a part of the community, you are not articulating what you are an alternative to but you are presenting yourself as an attractive and viable alternative. You are the alternative to businesses that look at customers as nuisances, businesses that treat them as profit generators and not people.

Billions and billions served. They’re not listening and if they don’t listen, they are going to suffer too!

It is fascinating that you found life in doing this. At what point did it become less of an experiment and more of an actual endeavor.

Like I said before I had so many debts that I needed to get out of and so much in back taxes that I needed to pay off. After the benefits started, the overall business picked up and I was able to deal with all of that and dig myself out. We kept getting busier. People and organizations who needed the help of a benefit began to call and write and I was doing all of this by the seat of my pants. After a full year, we put together a process that articulated how we would vote on, who would qualify to get a benefit, how to promote the events, and what procedures would yield the highest returns for each fundraiser. It has evolved a lot since.

We’re doing this thing for the community in a way we love, and we are benefitting community members, which is bringing new people into the restaurant. These are people who never would have been customers before. You do build your audience for the future by doing something like this, and we are doing these benefits for people from all over the state. We do a lot of school related events. Our biggest fundraiser was for Maranacook school and we were pulling people from all over that area. We have had all of these events, given to so many of these events, and supported so many of these events and it has built into what it is today.

“LAURA CAN’T GIVE ANYMORE.”

In November of 2013, Benedict received a now-notorious letter from the Office of the Maine Attorney General. The wording of the letter made it sound as if the Red Barn was being ordered to stop raising money for charities. After Benedict posted the letter on Facebook along with a summary of the work the Red Barn has done over the past 5 years, the incident earned the attention of nearly every news outlet in the stat. This was not the first time that the Red Barn’s fundraising efforts were impeded with by red tape.

Tell me about the letter from Attorney General Mills’ office.

First of all, that was not the first time something like that happened. We were having a concert series a few summers back and it was bringing extra business to the restaurant. We were taking that extra money and donating it to additional charities. That was shut down by the city of Augusta because the music was above 60 decibels. We were bringing in between $4 and $6 for charities and this was shut down because the music was at the same decibel count as traffic comes in at. That was on the front page of the Kennebec Journal and we got huge local community support out of that. We were then told to stop raffling tickets off for charity events because raffling is considered a game of chance, which only nonprofit organizations are technically able to do. This took an additional 3 to $4 thousand away from what we were raising to give away.

Those were the first nails in the coffin of my patience on this, but that letter… It went public and the whole community went ballistic.

Again, thinking back to that McDonalds situation and talking about the alternatives you are offering without necessarily articulating, what happened on Wall Street that screwed millions of Americans? How many of those people ended up getting into legal trouble. Next to no one. And here you are, doing what you can to raise money for people and causes and to create community and you are the focus of the threat of legal recourse.

Because of us putting that letter on Facebook, everybody there read our take on it. It is terrible news, “Laura can’t give anymore.” It doubled our business. We put it online on Friday night. We found out that Attorney General Mills knew we put it up a half hour after it hit our Facebook page. Every legislator called my cell phone to talk about it. She came in around 1:00 on Saturday afternoon and she was standing at the counter. I was wondering if she was mad at me. By that afternoon, we had every news channel calling us. It turned out to be sort of a mixup, it had something to do with a solicitation coming from another department, but it turned out to so big for us.

Note: The AG immediately apologized for the letter and the Red Barn thanked her for her visit and support via their Facebook .

Had I gotten the letter three years ago, I likely would have folded up and stopped doing all of this and closed up shop. I wouldn’t have known what to do. We have since worked on starting the Red Barn Cares Foundation to not only continue our giving, but to work with businesses who want to know how to do what we have done.

“I AM NOT GOING TO LET THIS CHANCE GO BY”

Does having had your life saved—literally save by medical intervention—motivate the work you do in any way?

The Red Barn is a vehicle for helping people. I was trying to make money for so long and I couldn’t compete. I had to change the way that I did things. This is what people want. People want community business owners and business people to reinvest and to collaborate. It feels good. Let’s help somebody. It feels way better to give than to receive, but I have needed a lot and I got it. People helped me when I needed it and I am thankful for that. Giving feels good. I shouldn’t even be alive here. I am not going going to let this chance go by.

PHOTO CREDIT: Knack Factory / Zack Bowen

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.