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