AUGUSTA, MAINE – For months, Bruce Young, a sales manager with Southern Maine Coca-Cola, visited the Red Barn restaurant. And each time he’d leave his business card behind.

Locals in Augusta frequent the Red Barn not just for the fried chicken and fresh seafood, but for its welcoming atmosphere and chance to interact with Laura Benedict, the restaurant’s owner who has raised over $1 million for local causes.

“Laura has to be one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met,” Young says. “People come to the store because they see her on the news.”

Seven years ago, Benedict gave Young a call when she needed the sign outside of the restaurant repaired. She wanted to give the business to a friend.

Coca-Cola happily agreed, and the Red Barn has been a Coca-Cola customer ever since.

“Coca-Cola has the personal touch and can relate to everyone,” Benedict said. “That's the difference. I feel like I'm their only client.”

The Coca-Cola Company understands how small communities thrive. They recognize the impact Benedit and the Red Barn have on a local level.

Over the years, Young has helped Benedict and the restaurant on several projects – building a walk-in cooler for packaged goods, filling ice machines, hanging signs, and delivering and setting up umbrellas and outdoor furniture.

Like Young, Benedict is dedicated to lending a helping hand. Her commitment to giving began when she had very little to give.

Peter and Laura Benedict
Peter Benedict, General Manager of the Red Barn and Laura Benedict, owner. 

Impacting Her Community: 'It’s All About People'

Benedict dropped out of college when her brother offered her the chance to take over the family restaurant.

“I signed the papers, and the restaurant was all mine,” she said. “I was immediately $170,000 in debt with the IRS. I walked into the world’s most perfect storm.”

She struggled to keep the restaurant afloat and accrued $1 million in debt by the time she was 20 years old. At one point, she was living in her car. She’d often cry herself to sleep.  

Fifteen years later, she had come a long way, but was still finding it hard to pay her vendors and employees.

Benedict was ready to close the doors of the Red Barn. But one day she received a food order delivery that she didn’t place. She decided to prepare the food and give it away to her customers for free.

It became a turning point for Benedict's life and her business.

She used that turning point to adopt a new “business model” where she supports her community through fundraisers and benefits hosted at the Red Barn. A significant portion of the proceeds are donated to organizations – and people – that need local support from business owners like Benedict.

“The more I make, the more I give,” she said.

As more and more people walked through the Red Barn doors, Benedict's customers and employees became her family and friends. They lifted her up.

“There’s never a moment when the door to my past isn’t ajar,” she says, crediting her customers and the people she’s helped over the years for saving her own life. “I continue to gravitate toward good people who I can learn from.”

As Benedict – both personally and as a business owner — relies on the support of her community, people rely on the Red Barn. Benedict and her team started out hosting one fundraiser a month. Now they host up to one a week.

Benedict has been recognized for her commitment to giving back by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) by winning the 2017 Restaurant Neighbor Award. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Laura Benedict
Laura accepted the 2017 Restaurant Neighbor Award at the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s annual Industry Awards Gala last February in Washington, D.C. 

“She’s created a new way to bring customers to the store,” said Young.

Benedict is committed to giving every single day. She spends most of her time on the other side of the counter, greeting customers, sitting down and having conversations, and getting to know the people she serves. When she’s behind the counter, you might find her writing inspirational messages or affixing stickers to the inside of take-out containers. 

“This isn’t about food anymore,” she said. “I hold a responsibility to make someone’s day a little better, make the day a little less cold.”

Coca-Cola bottlers and suppliers have close relationships with their customers, but the work the Red Barn does makes it easy to support her.

Al Hartt, general manager of Southern Maine Coca-Cola, sees that Benedict truly cares about people.

“It’s a win for the community, and it’s a win for her,” he said. “Laura is taking her profit and giving it back, and that is truly giving.”