We knew the Red Barn in Augusta was special. Friends and family members have raved about the food for years. Red Barn has great food at low prices — let’s get that right out there. But we had no idea that the real story here is one of generosity, community spirit and family.
Every month, the staff directs all of their tips to charities. All the sales of whoopie pies go to charity, too. And every other Monday night, Red Barn hosts a fundraiser for a worthy cause — the staff donates their time and the restaurant donates all the food.
Go there for the food. Keep going there to encourage this generous and caring team of wonderful people.
My brother Gordon and his wife Janet , sister Edie, Dad Ezra and his friend Irma, joined Linda and me for a Sunday luncheon feast. Normally the tables turn over quickly at Red Barn, but we managed to spend two and a half hours there.
One hour was spent in a fascinating conversation with Red Barn’s owner, Laura Benedict, an energetic and entertaining lady with a heart a lot bigger than her restaurant. Laura, from a family of 11 kids, started working at her brother Robert’s restaurant at age 11 and took over the Red Barn in 1986 at the age of 19.
Dad and Irma eat here often and when asked for menu recommendations, Irma said, “Everything is good.” With a big group, we were able to try a lot of choices, including scallops, clams, shrimp and chicken. And Irma was right: Everything was good!
While Gordon, Janet and Linda had never eaten here, I’ve been a Red Barn fan for many years, almost always ordering their famous seafood stew. I started Sunday’s meal with a cup just because I could not eat here without a taste of this yummy chock-full-of-shrimp-scallops-haddock-and-lobster stew. It’s Laura’s signature dish.
I was impressed with the staff — friends and family of Laura, whose brother Peter is the manager. On Sunday, Peter’s wife Christina, a Gardiner teacher, was taking orders at the counter. A lady who Laura befriended during a health crisis was cleaning tables.
Larry Stewart seems typical — an Air Force retiree who called on Laura to sell her a TV ad, then convinced her she needed an assistant. Now, he handles promotions and charitable events — and was working in the kitchen when we visited, “just to help out.”
Two years ago, the family got together and — for Laura’s birthday — built an addition onto her at-that-time-tiny restaurant. Both rooms were packed all the time we were there. Time for a new birthday present!
The Benedict family also owns Augusta Seafood, helping Laura serve only fresh seafood — nothing frozen here. “If I need something, I’ve got a key to the store,” she exclaimed.
We saw lots of people picking up take-out, and Laura also offers a catering service. She’s a marketing genius. During a blizzard, worried about lost business, she sent out a Tweet offering home delivery of all orders — and got tons! While most restaurants wring their hands over the loss of business during a storm, Laura’s storm troopers now hit the road. Today, she also delivers to specific locations like the new hospital worksite.
When the woman who took care of Red Barn’s Facebook page left, they had 200 online friends. Laura started telling stories on the page and in 15 months, has expanded her list of friends to 7000. In 25 countries! With a mother who was Norwegian, Laura has found a real connection to that country — and now flies its flag alongside the American flag outside the restaurant.
When the Patriots were on Monday Night Football last fall, she had a friend hold up a Red Barn sign — and it got on the air. And she’s managed to get her logo on the back of Coke delivery trucks — after a guy flew in from Georgia to win her account away from Pepsi, and found out just how tough a bargain she can drive.
Not long ago, she opened a take-out in Winslow, already on course to do more than $1 million in business in its first year. The Augusta restaurant typically serves 1,000 on a Saturday and 10,000 a week in the summer (when outside seating is available).
But honestly, Laura and her staff made us feel like we were the only ones in the restaurant.
By the time we ended our meal with — of course! — whoopie pies, we’d made a bunch of new friends — and Laura had some new lifelong customers.
On a Sunday at noon, the Red Barn is packed. I’d never been here before, but have heard people raving about the food for years. People kept pouring in and lining up at the counter to place their orders. But here’s where the uniqueness of this place shines.
Customers are met with friendly smiles of a staff that is eager to serve them. You can’t fake genuine caring and, unlike a fast food place, these workers care. But like a fast food place, food zips out of that kitchen in record time, even though it is cooked as the orders come in. I watch as a long line forms, and in no time the line disappears and the customers are all eating.
We asked Laura how this was possible. “We try to get the food in and out in under a minute,” she says. So clearly the prep work is highly organized and these fresh ingredients are popped into the fryer briefly and sent out to you piping hot.
The Red Barn has mastered the art of deep-frying food without overcooking it or making it greasy.
My chicken tenders were small pieces of chicken, perfectly cooked and tender. And that was the comment on every dish we tried — tender and not overcooked. The chicken tenders were the best I’ve ever had, but I also loved the fried shrimp.
This is a real family restaurant — I quickly noticed a few tables where three generations were dining together. Two generations were at several other tables, and it appeared to be a place that friends go out to eat in a relaxed, down-home atmosphere.
It certainly felt like “true Maine” to me.
If you ever meet Laura, you will know right off that this restaurant means the world to her. She’s constantly trying new ways to reach customers and keep the food quality excellent so that her clients come back.
“I love this place and I love coming to work,” exclaims Laura. With enthusiasm like this, how can she fail?
Good food, enthusiastic friendly staff, a smart inspiring leader, fiercely loyal customers who often order the same thing every time, a willingness to take her food wherever she can find a customer, close attention to every opportunity to market her restaurant, an extraordinary commitment to helping others — well, Laura Benedict has created something very special up there on Riverside Drive.
As a gag, she came up with a massive 28-ounce $40 lobster roll one summer day. It’s turned out to be a huge (in all ways) hit. She sold 10 of them on the Sunday we visited!
She tried an Elvis tribute singer one summer night for $300 and did $4,000 more in sales. And yes, Elvis comes back — often. Turns out he has quite a following! And so does Laura Benedict and her Red Barn!
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