AUGUSTA — “Who wants to kill Santa Claus this year?”
That was Peter Benedict’s response when the state ordered the Red Barn restaurant to stop raising money for charities.
Benedict is general manager of the restaurant owned by his sister, Laura Benedict. They and others have raised more than $635,000 for various charitable causes over the past three years.
The letter from the Office of the Maine Attorney General arrived on Wednesday, a Facebook posting about it went out later Friday and by Saturday afternoon, Attorney General Janet Mills had stopped at the restaurant to apologize in person.
“I certainly approve of what Laura’s doing and friends helping friends,” Mills said. “I just think what she is doing is terrific.
Mills said her office might issue guidance for businesses such as the Red Barn about how to comply with the law easily.
However, receiving the letter made for a rough Thanksgiving for Laura Benedict.
“I didn’t want to open it,” Laura Benedict said Saturday. “The words â€˜cease and desist’ just came right out at me.”
She was already stressed about the free Thanksgiving feast being put on by the Red Barn in conjunction with other organizations. In all, that effort fed more than 500 people on Thursday and an extra 100 on Friday.
The order from the Office of the Attorney General effectively quashed the Benedict family’s fundraising, which has consisted of more than 100 benefits over the past few years. “All the money goes to charity,” he said. In fact, Laura Benedict and her family were lauded by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce this year for having raised money for local nonprofits and other needy groups and individuals since November 2010. That’s when the Red Barn started a series of benefit dinners. Along with its Riverside Drive restaurant, the family opened a drive-thru location in Winslow two years ago.
The letter seemed like a slap in the face.
“I took it like it was a freight train just ran over me,” Laura Benedict said. “It ruined my absolute day.”
The Benedicts delayed making their problem public until the dinners were served, and they put up a Facebook posting late Friday about their dilemma:
“We have some terrible news!! We will not be able to participate in any fundraising until we get this resolved.”
The letter from Assistant Attorney General Michael Miller says, “The Charitable Solicitions Act requires most entities that are soliciting contributions from the public for a charitable purpose to be licensed with the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation. … This office directs you to cease engaging in solicitation as a charitable organization until you become licensed as a charitable organization or show why you do not need to be licensed as such.”
Miller also directs the Red Barn owners to a government website wwww.maine.gov/pfr/professionallicensing/professions/charitable.
“The IRONY is we could apply for an exemption if 100 percent of the proceeds were donated from our fundraisers right at that time, but we pay sales tax on the donations so we don’t break the law governing taxes!!! Also, we don’t solicit funds as a â€˜Charitable Organization,’ we are a for-profit restaurant (and have never lied about that) and wish to help our community!!!”
The posting went up Friday. “We would have shared this news yesterday, but we were a bit nervous about feeding almost 500 people for Thanksgiving!! We do have a plan, and it is a good one. We are upset we can’t continue to help cancer survivors raise money for treatment or help schools raise money for programs that have been cut from budgets, but until we are in compliance, we must CEASE AND DESIST giving back to our community!!”
By Saturday, thousands of people had logged their support for the Benedicts’ efforts on Facebook, and some showed up in person at the Augusta restaurant to dine on seafood chowder, fried fish, etc.
“It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday,” Laura Benedict said, looking around at the full booths and tables and the line of people waiting to order. She shared her booth with a friend, Nancy Merrick, who had stopped by to dine and to lend her support.
Peter Benedict took a break from the kitchen to come out front. “I’m standing behind my sister,” he said. “Don’t hurt my sister.”
Carol Foreman and Toddy Fox came together from South China, each carrying small cardboard signs saying “We support the Red Barn supporting the community.” They had seen the Facebook posting, and they hugged Laura Benedict as they stood in line to order food.
Laura Benedict’s immediate concern, she said, was ensuring she could run the Dec. 9 dinner scheduled to benefit the Skating Alliance of Maine. It seems now it’s likely to go ahead.
For most of the benefits, the Red Barn buys all the chicken, haddock, fries and drinks, and opens from 4 to 6 p.m. on a Monday, a day it’s usually closed. Diners are asked to donate $6 for a meal, and all the money goes to the charity. “I buy all the food and the people that work here volunteer,” Benedict said. She also adds money to the pot.
She said the dinners have benefited various charitable groups, individuals needing help with medical bills, “every single Project Graduation, Literacy Volunteers and every kind of cancer.” One two-hour dinner raised $5,700.
Benedict said she planned to comply with the law by starting a Red Barn Foundation as a charitable organization, but that would take time and probably a lawyer’s help.
Benedict said she would have preferred a phone call notifying her about a possible violation rather than the form letter.
“Could you just talk to me first? she asked.
“I hate those form letters,” Mills said. “Some bureaucrat from the Office of Financial and Professional Regulation trolling for violations found three or four solicitations for donations on Facebook and asked our office to send a letter. I would not send that kind of letter.” She also said she regretted the timing.
“I felt so bad for her. I really did,” Mills said. “She’s a sincere person and a valued member of the community.” Mills said the law is aimed at out-of-state professional solicitors who sometimes keep up to 80 percent of the money collected.
Benedict has worked at the business, either as employee or owner, since 1977. “I love my job, ” she said. “I love everything about this business.”
Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said Saturday that while he understands the law needs to be enforced, he plans to propose changes that would allow businesses such as the Benedicts’ to participate in charitable fundraising.
“The Red Barn is such an asset and has such an outpouring of support from the community,” Pouliot said.