It was 1966. I was 16 at the time and a big fan of the emerging fast-food craze. McDonald’s was taking off, and we had a place named Burger Shack on Marlboro Pike, near the Hillside Drive-in Theater, selling yummy hamburgers for fifteen cents a pop. I loved Fridays because my mother often brought home Burger Shack dinner, which included hamburgers, fries, and shakes. So, I thought the best way to get a constant supply of burgers was to go to work for the new place called Red Barn that had recently opened in Coral Hills. Although the goal was to gorge myself on free eats, I had fallen upon a pretty decent job. Red Barn was a really good chain that was started in the early 60s in Ohio, whose first Franchisee was Harry Barmeier. At its peak, they had around 400 restaurants in 22 states, as well as Canada and Australia. What I liked about Red Barn that was different from McDonald’s, was they sold fried chicken. My mother grew up in Southern Virginia, so fried chicken was one of the foods I learned to love. I still do but have to abstain because of the cholesterol problems we know about now, that we didn’t hear about then.
I was on the night shift, which went until closing. Our shift manager was a fellow named John. He was all of 19 but was still the boss. John was on his way up the corporate ladder, yet he was very down to earth. We often messed around with him. He drove a dark blue Karmann Ghia that usually started, but sometimes did not. John had a rather weak stomach.
Our blanched French fries were made from scratch, using a potato peeling machine and slicer. We blanched the fries and put them in the cooler for frying when needed. There was a product called Stay Fresh we used to keep them from spoiling. It probably caused health problems, but what the hell did we know in 1966? I couldn’t find anything on the Internet about it, but I would guess it was somehow related to MSG. When Stay Fresh was sprinkled in milk shake mix, it had a foul smell. One of our pranks was to take a bit of shake mix, drop a little Stay Fresh in it, and ask John to take a whiff and let us know if the mix was OK to use. The smell never failed to make him vomit. And we laughed our asses off. Sometimes John would have a drink set aside for himself, and we would add a little Stay Fresh to it when he wasn’t looking. Once he took a sip, he was a goner. It got to the point where we would just tell him it was in his drink (even though it wasn’t) and he would barf. Quite the chuckles for us punks.
My favorite task at Red Barn was to work the grill. Cooking the hamburgers, fries and chicken made me feel like a chef. It kept my Ichabod Craneish persona (picture Ric Ocasek with zits and a paper garrison cap) away from the customers, and I preferred to avoid their whiny orders, anyway. Working the counter usually ticked me off, but running the grill gave me command of the entire process.
The policy of Red Barn was to allow us to have free fried chicken only on Wednesdays and Sundays. But we were cleverer than they thought. At the end of the evening, any leftovers were fair game for our gluttonous ways. Around 10:00 PM, we would drop a load of chicken in the fryer, knowing it couldn’t be sold by the time we closed, leaving us with quite a bit of waste, that either had to be thrown away or consumed. John usually looked the other way, and we had chicken on whatever day we wanted.
Robbery of fast food restaurants was a fairly new phenomenon. During my time at Red Barn, we got hit twice. Once, a guy came in while I was cleaning the grill, hunched down near me to avoid being seen from the window, pointed a gun and yelled, “Where’s the money?” It took me a couple of seconds to realize what was happening, and I just said, “It’s in the back.” He was anxious and ran into the back of the store, while I took a moment to gather myself. Then it dawned on me what was going on. I shook for a while and stood still, then figuring he was gone, went in the back looking for the rest of the crew. No one was around, so I worried a bit, then opened the walk-in refrigerator. Everyone inside instinctively put their hands in the air until they realized it was me, and John asked, “Is he gone?” Since no one was bleeding we figured he was. John then called the police. What the gunman didn’t realize was the cash registers had not been reconciled, so “The money was in them.” Robber Man did get away with the petty cash box, escaping with about $35.00. A big haul, and perhaps a couple of nights of drinking, or one fix of whatever drug he probably abused.
The second attempted heist was just this side of ridiculous. Oftentimes after we closed, our activities included a drive to Guys and Dolls pool hall in Silver Hill, for an early morning round of pocket billiards, or a jaunt to Waldorf to throw our wages away in the slot machines that were legal at the time. This particular evening John was going to drive a few of us to Waldorf. We closed the store, and started piling into his Ghia, when we heard, “Give me the money!” We looked around to see where the voice originated and saw what appeared to be a gun peeking out from the fence behind the store, with the “criminal” hiding in the bushes. The Karmann Ghia wouldn’t start, so we pushed it with John using the driver’s door as a shield, as we backed out of the parking space, snickering all the way. After popping the clutch, the car started, and we drove away from the “bad guy,” and headed to Waldorf. Our subsequent laughter was probably a combination of fear and relief that this particular robbery attempt was committed by a fool. We survived for another day of French fry blanching and terrorizing John.
My stint at Red Barn gives me fond memories. I’m not quite sure what happened with John’s career, but being the kind, gentle soul he was, I would guess he fared well (unless a corporate audit revealed our chicken thievery). I tend to think if people are good, good things come of it. Since I don’t remember his last name, I can’t Google him to see where he might be (just entering John brought about 1,040,000,000 results). But the last Red Barn franchising leases expired around 1986, so I can assume he has left the night shift.
I just hope wherever John is, he has a reliable car.
Bake My Fish
31 thoughts on “Who Left the Red Barn Door Open?”
I love how you write.
It is kind of comforting (and of course funny) to read your stuff.
Thanks for sharing!
Best blog yet!
It made my morning! Right up there with Hurling at the 7-11.
I remember the Red Barn! I used to love their salad with Italian dressing, when I was 22-3.
So YOU are the reason leftover fast food has to be dumped and not distributed. They say it’s a health regulation but I think it was because of you wippersnappers. You changed the coarse of free leftover food distribution. You are the one. You are the one who ruined my free food life, as well as the lives of other foodmongers.
Hang your head low with shame.
Shame on you.
Bet you were quite happy until you received this tongue lashing. In retrospect, tongue anything probably made your day.
You know, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I just didn’t realize how old you really are.
Excellent blog entry, Bake.
And don’t forget that the Red Barn’s fried chicken was unique in that it featured an unusual piece called a, “keel”. I believe this was part of the breast, a flexible piece of cartilage connecting the breast bone to the breast muscles.
I guess the Red Barn wanted a unique piece to include with their fried chicken. Kind of strange…
I usually think back everytime this time of year of my 1st summer working at The Red Barn in Suitland. I started working there in the fall of 1972.
Later, I met my 1st wife when I was rotated to the Red Barn on St. Barnabas Rd as a Manager. She was the sald bar hostess there.
When I was attending Bradbury Heights Elementary School, we watched as the new Red Barn was being built for Coral Hills. We didn’t have a clue what was being built. We had to put book covers on all the books that were issued to us while in school, and, as a promotional item, the Red Barn had supplied our school with a lot of “Red Barn” logo book covers.
Along the bottom edge of these book covers were coupons good for a free shake one month, free fries on another month, etc. No purchase was necessary to get the free item. I remember, too, the Coral Hills Red Barn had a huge barrel that sat on the counter that had the spigots for their Root Beer. Maybe, other flavors were dispensed from that barrel, but, we liked Root Beer then as kids.
Thank you Bake, this is a great post!Will put a link on my homepage. Thanks again!
I have been reading your Blog for a couple of months now. Ever since the Gong Show story. This one is really funny.
As a teenager, you must have been a real cut up. I hope your shift manager’s weak stomach got better.
If I was your boss, I would have kicked your butt and then fired you.
I sure did like those Big Barney hamburgers. The french fries and chicken were real good. The best was the chocolate shakes.
I wish Red Barn was still around here in Indiana.
I didn’t work at one, but my parents took me there many, many times.
They were so good.
How’s it feel to be a chicken thief?
A nice mix of nostalgia, information and humor.
Very entertaining story!!
Did Red Barn serve Baked Fish?
I worked at Red Barn for 3 years and have a few stories to tell but the freshner that you used on the fries were sulfites. We would take the old brown lettuce and mix the freshner with water and old lettuce and….Viola!!!… fresh produce. I believe they have since banned this product as a health hazzard and that is why you don’t find it anymore.
Red Barn chicken was good if not better than the Colonel (some say) because they used a chicken wash(vinegar and spices) which took out the odor raw chicken sometimes has. It was then dusted in their own secret breading and pressure cooked in Wesson corn oil. The oil was filtered each night to improve its life and taste. If you wanted to know.
I was a Red Barn fanatic. We always stopped there after driving around drinking beer all night. I always order a Barn Buster and fries. The root beer was awesome. Many times I would get a couple of pieces of chicken if I was really wasted. Good stuff.Awesome blog. Keep it up. Give me more stories about food back then.
The bad smell that resulted from adding the sulfites to the milk shake mix, was probably because they created sulphur gas.
Wow. A story about Red Barn. I wasn’t old enough to work there before they went out of business, but my parents took us there all the time. I loved their fries and root beer.
Go, Red Barn!!
I hadn’t though about Red Barn since I passed one that had been remodeled and opened as a tile store a couple of years ago.
You said in your post that the manager from Red Barn had the first name of John.
I googled John + Red Barn + Manager and found something on the internet from someone that worked at the same Red Barn you did in 1971. They had mentioned the managers name was John Simms.
I worked at the Red Barn on St. Barnabas Road shortly in 1976 as a Hostess. Since it was a second (part-time)job, I left after a couple of months.
Remember cleaning the tables, floors with a wet mop, and serving sodas from a pitcher in my long red & white checkered dress. (o:
don’t know who wrote this but I worked at this red barn around the same time,was there when we got robbed,3guys ambushed us while we were picking up lot after closing and made us knock on door to get in,made roy the manager open safe and then locked us in the cooler.I remember roy’s wife worked there to.we also had a night manager who used to take us under age teens into dc to harrigans,a topless bar to drink after closing and clean-up
Cool story. Nice photos. I grew up in Capital Heights in the 60’s too, although I was younger than you. In 66 I was only 6, which is when we moved there. We used eat at the Red Barn every chance we got. We lived over on Elfin and walked up Glacier Ave every day (Devil’s Hill was the name of that steep grade 2 blocks before Marlboro Pike) on our way to school (Bradbury Heights). They used to have these coupons and we’d get them I think in the paper, and use them for burgers and fries. So we’d stop, usually on the way home and get some tasty burgers and fries and eat them as we walked.
I also liked your shots of the Hillside Drive Inn. We also went there several times. Movies I saw there from the back seat of our family station wagon (A nice Ford Falcon) included John Wayne in “Big Jake” and Elvis Presley in “Frankie and Johnnie”. Those were the days.
Hey, remember the “Big Ben”? Over on Larchmont?
I went to Bradbury Heights for the first three years, then transfered to Capitol Heights Elemenetary. When I was going to Bradbury Heights, I stayed at the Day Nursery behind the Car Wash on Marlboro Pike until my mother got off work and picked me up. At that time I was living in District Heights. We moved to Capitol Heights when I was 8.
The Big Ben on Larchmont (57th Avenue then) was like a 7 – 11 for everyone. I lived on 49th Avenue, which is now called Balboa.
Hillside Drive-in was the best in the area.
Glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll add you to the mailing list and keep you updated. Not every story has to do with PG County, but many do.
I’m still here! Have a restaurant in OC Maryland……. Anthony’s Carry Out 17th st ….. 47 years now and a full service car wash like Sams was next to the Hess station…..and I do have a good car now. 😊
Glad to hear from you. I thought I never would.
Hi, John is my father. Love this article that you wrote. Can I have a copy? I would love to post it on our wall in Johnny’s Sub Shop. This is a small sandwich shop that my Dad purchased in 1990. My sister and I have continued our father’s work.
We are lucky to call ‘Johnny’ Dad.
We appreciate your kind words and humor.