.Burger Barn Keeps Red Barn Chain Alive One Burger at a Time

Spirit of a beloved restaurant chain lives on

On Forest Avenue behind Valley Fair, the glorious Burger Barn is one of the last San Jose structures remaining from the celebrated Red Barn fast-food chain.

Outside, a nondescript wooden sign hanging over the patio says “outcasts,” a reference to the car club that meets at the restaurant, but as I plowed through a pastrami sandwich, I figured outcasts might refer to the ghosts of history instead.

Red Barn began in Ohio in 1961 and soon expanded across the US and Canada via sturdy barn-shaped buildings. People adored the hamburgers, shakes and cheap family fare. Even today, Facebook groups wax nostalgic about all things Red Barn. Anytime someone spots a former Red Barn garbage can, it gets posted.

By 1972, the South Bay claimed at least ten Red Barn restaurants. Aside from Burger Barn on Forest, only a few of the buildings remain. Over in East San Jo, one finds a popular Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant called Boda at 2868 Story Road, located in a former Red Barn. At least on the outside, the building remains relatively unchanged.

Over in Campbell, the address of 851 West Hamilton used to be a Red Barn until the late ’70s. The current restaurant, Hash House, presents some serious architectural intrigue. You can see what is perhaps the shell of the former Red Barn buried underneath all the ridiculous additions that were appended over the years. It’s there, if you look.

As always, the ghosts came calling, especially from buildings that bit the dust long ago, which naturally led me right back to downtown San Jose. The long-gone address of 250 East Santa Clara—exactly where the City Hall tower is now—once boasted a Red Barn beginning in the late ’60s and this is precisely where a one Mr. Alden Campen enters the picture. A legendary figure in San Jose history, it is to Mr. Campen’s ghost that I will now turn.

Aside from helping start Happy Hollow and Kelley Park, Campen was a landowner and property manager who, unlike many of his redevelopment peers, actually cared about humanity, justice and social issues, often rallying against the corporations and lawyers who exerted undue influence on San Jose politicians. A San Jose High graduate and San Jose State attendee, Campen ran the St. James Hotel and served on the citizen’s committee for the airport in the ’40s, all before serving in WWII, in both the US Army Medical Corps and the Air Force. He was later a member of the ACLU and the San Jose Peace Center, rallying against nuclear bombs and supporting the rights of Japanese-Americans who were interned in the camps. In the late ’60s, when BART was first materializing and downtown San Jose was first imploding, Campen advocated for bringing mass transit to the South Bay, all while the citizenry and the Mercury-News argued against bringing BART here. Capping this roster of heroics, Campen built the Red Barn at Sixth and Santa Clara, demolishing a used car dealership in the process.

According to an old Merc article, when Campen’s Red Barn first broke ground in 1967, it was the second one in San Jose, after the first one on Forest. Other franchises soon materialized on Stevens Creek Boulevard, Meridian Avenue, Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road, El Camino Real, and another on Union Avenue across from Cambrian Park Plaza.

Nevertheless, downtown San Jose was not exactly the place to be anymore. By the time the ’80s came around, the Red Barn at Sixth and Santa Clara had plummeted out of business and morphed into a Vietnamese/Chinese place called Cherry Flower Restaurant, although the property remained in the Campen family.

Then in the early ’90s, the Red Barn building was demolished to erect a controversial Taco Bell, which, at that corner, predictably became a crime zone and a homeless congregation. The Taco Bell was then subsequently demolished when city hall was built. If the researcher’s journey is to find the overlap between history and life itself, I would argue that the corner of Sixth and Santa Clara is a microcosm of San Jose itself.

Thankfully, we still have Forest Avenue behind Valley Fair, where the outcasts will forever roam. Red Barn is dead. Long live Red Barn!

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am so glad Gary Singh did this piece about the former Red Barn buildings. I live near the Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road location, and it is still standing in its original form – red faux brick siding and all. These buildings are indeed sturdily built. Today it is functioning as a kitchen remodeling business, and before that it was host to a western wear and saddle shop (kind of apropos that).
    I remember in my elementary school there were periodic “Hamburger Lunch Days”, with that particular Red Barn supplying the burgers. Sometimes I would spot the Red Barn manager delivering the burgers in a picnic box right before lunch started. “Hamburger Day” was a big deal for a 1970’s grade-schooler.
    Gary, how about a story like this about the former Kinney Shoes buildings? There’s one nearby this original Red Barn building and I’m sure there are others around the South Bay.

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