December 30, 2012

Red Barn restaurant recognized with President's Award by Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce

When times were tough, 'chicken shack' gambled on giving away food, using social media to build business, and succeeded

By Keith Edwards
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Laura Benedict, left, and Peter Benedict, sister and brother co-owners of The Red Barn, pose in the restaurant on Dec. 4, in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Chamber awards

The Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce grants annual awards to the region’s most significant businesses, its leaders and organizations. The Kennebec Journal is offering stories about each award winner. The awards banquet is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 25, at the Augusta Civic Center.

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."

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