AUGUSTA — Since starting a series of benefit dinners in November 2010, The Red Barn restaurant has raised $400,000 for local nonprofit groups, events and individuals in need.

Owner Laura Benedict lovingly describes the restaurant as an out-of-the-way chicken shack. She started the biweekly Monday evening fundraisers, in which diners get either a fish or chicken lunch-sized basket for a $5 donation, at a time when the business was struggling to pay its bills.

Since then, the family business on Riverside Drive has thrived, seeing revenues climb even as it regularly gave away tens of thousands of dollars worth of food at the benefit dinners — at no charge to the beneficiaries for the food or for the staff time, which is donated by employees.

“Over the two-and-a-half years we’ve given that money away, it has increased my revenues by $3 million,” Benedict said. “People ask, ‘How can you open the doors and give food away? Couldn’t you use that $400,000 for yourself?’ But I wouldn’t be open at all today if I hadn’t done that. I changed my philosophy from just trying to stay in business to doing something more purpose-driven. It has created so much good will.”

For the business’ efforts to help the community while also being successful, the Red Barn won a Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce President’s Award.

It’s an award members of the Benedict family have won before. In 2002 Laura Benedict’s late mom, Florence, and brothers Bob and Jeff won the same award at Augusta Seafood, which is just down the road from The Red Barn.

Peter Thompson, president and CEO of the chamber, said the award recognizes a business “that has made a significant contribution to the community, has experienced a level of hard work and innovation that is what helps businesses survive, and has a unique role in the community.”

“Over the last few years, Laura has taken advantage of modern technology and by using social media has shot the place up in terms of patrons and raising money for her special community causes,” Thompson said.

About the same time The Red Barn began hosting the regular benefit dinners, Benedict also started growing the business’ presence in social media, especially on Facebook. That was daunting at first for her.

The first time she tried using it, “I circled the computer 13 times — I didn’t even know how to turn it on,” said Benedict, a Hallowell resident. “I was in here at a booth, it was pitch black, and I’m tapping away at the keys, writing, ‘Can anybody help me? What do I do to get more likes?’”

Now, Benedict said business groups and owners seek her out for advice on how to boost business through social media.

The Red Barn’s Facebook page has some 12,500 fans who’ve clicked “like” to show their support for the business, which also means often, when Benedict’s posts on The Red Barn Facebook are liked or commented upon by fans, that information appears before people who aren’t directly connected to her Facebook page. Benedict said that if you count the Facebook “friends” of those fans, nearly 1.9 million users can see The Red Barn’s posts.

And that virtual buzz has helped bring real foot traffic to The Red Barn.

The Red Barn and Benedict’s contributions to the community go beyond the benefit dinners.

Earlier this year, she donated her 2005 Chrysler Crossfire SRT convertible, with just 14,000 miles on it, to be raffled off to raise funds for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine. The car raffle brought in about $25,000 to NAMI.

“Laura has been very, very helpful to us in a number of ways, with fundraising, in events, with food, her personal attention, and she donated her beautiful car, which she was very attached to,” said Carol Carothers, executive director of NAMI-Maine. “She’s just been an angel of mercy for us.”

Benedict said she gave her car to NAMI-Maine, which provides support, education and advocacy for people with mental illness, to make a positive impact in the community and because she struggled with mental health issues herself years ago.

“I had some struggles myself; I wish I had known then there were people like (those at NAMI) to talk to,” Benedict said. “I loved that car. But (the raffle) helped make NAMI a household name. And it was just something you’d never think a tiny little chicken shack would do.”

Laura Benedict’s older brother, Robert, bought the business, which started as an ice cream stand at a red dairy barn on Riverside Drive in 1977, and expanded the menu, which now features an array of fried seafood and chicken and Laura’s famous seafood stew.

Laura Benedict, one of 10 children, started working there at age 11, standing on a milk crate to reach the counter. She took over the business in 1986 at the age of 19. It has since grown, including the addition of extensive outdoor seating in the summer and the expansion of the dining room, which now can seat 100.

She said the restaurant has served 7 million diners. The restaurant currently has 26 employees, a number that swells to 35 in peak season. They include her brother Peter, general manager of the business, and nephews Shane and Trever.

Last year, The Red Barn opened a small drive-through location in Winslow.

As one of only a few independent, non-national-chain restaurants remaining in the area, Benedict appreciates what The Red Barn has and knows it will take continued hard work to make it last.

“Working 20-hour days for 35 years, I never take anything for granted,” she said. “It’s very difficult to do. Every single meal has to be served with integrity.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
kedwards@centralmaine.com