For people who own a Tiffin motorhome, a trip to Red Bay, Alabama, where the company is headquartered, is like a right of passage. Owners travel there to get warranty and repair work done at the Tiffin Service Center or one of the many local businesses owned and operated by former employees. The town is kind of a one-stop shop for all things Tiffin.
What we’d noticed in our conversations with various Tiffin owners, however, was that few of them had many positive things to say about their visits to Red Bay. While everyone seemed to agree that the people who live and work there are very nice, the impression we got was that Red Bay itself was a very small town in the middle of nowhere with very few options for things to do.
And it turns out, that impression was correct.
And to be clear, this isn’t about Red Bay’s status as a small town. We’ve been to plenty of little towns in out-of-the-way places that we thoroughly enjoyed and would absolutely recommend to others. From great scenery (Winthrop, WA), to fascinating history (Lone Pine, CA), to charming surroundings (Mackinac Island, MI), to creative art (Truth or Consequences, NM), to one-of-a-kind organizations (Kanab, UT), we’ve found all kinds of reasons to love all kinds of tiny towns.
But Red Bay doesn’t really offer any of those things. The scenery is pretty unremarkable and the list of unique things to see and do is limited.
The list of “standard” things to do is limited, too.
There are no movie theaters, no bowling alleys, no mini golf places, no bookstores, no cafes, and no nice downtown areas to stroll and browse.
Making matters worse, Red Bay is dry – alcohol is not sold in stores or restaurants.
And yes, I know, people can have fun without drinking. But alcohol fuels a lot of entertainment related businesses and when you take it out of the mix, it leaves a gaping hole.
In other words, you don’t have to drink beer to appreciate the fun of visiting a brewery, playing cornhole, and sitting around a fire pit with your friends. And folks who drink nothing stronger than Diet Coke can still appreciate watching a football game on a TV at a sports pub. And you don’t have to like wine to enjoy a nice restaurant with a pretty patio on a warm sunny day.
Anyone can enjoy any of these places without having a drop of booze. But when booze isn’t permitted, these places often don’t exist.
And so it is with Red Bay – the town’s handful of restaurants are fine for having a quick meal, but they’re not the kind of places people linger, and there are no establishments that encourage people to just come in and socialize.
Honestly, what was so striking to me was just how much of a missed opportunity the whole place is.
The fact is, most economically depressed towns are economically depressed for a reason – they’re in an isolated area where no one passes through, or there are no strong local industries, or a natural disaster or economic downturn has set them back.
Red Bay doesn’t have any of those problems. In fact, it should be an absolute boom town – especially given the last decade when RV travel has exploded in popularity.
This is just one row of motorhomes at the Tiffin Service Center while we were in town. The place was absolutely packed with (bored) people waiting to get work done.
You don’t have to “build it so they will come.” They’re already here!!
And I get it – maybe the people of Red Bay like it the way it is. Fine. But I’m just saying, if some local resident was like: “I would like to make a bajillion bucks,” he could totally make a bajillion bucks. All he’d need to do is get the alcohol laws repealed, open a brewery, set up a menu involving burgers and duck fat fries, hire some local musicians to perform a couple nights a week, and then recruit some youngsters to transport the wheelbarrows full of cash the brewery would be making from the bar to the bank.
Wheelbarrows, people. Wheel. Barrows.
Sadly, of course, as I am reminded again and again, no one cares what I think, and the result is we got marooned in this beer-less, burger-less, duck fat fries-less town for way longer than we wanted. And that all comes down to Tiffin.
Time for a new subheading…
Tiffin – Doing Things the Old Fashioned Way – Even When the Old Fashioned Way No Longer Makes Sense
Anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that I have nothing but good things to say about our motorhome. It has been a solid and reliable home on wheels that has never stranded us and has provided us exactly what we hoped for many years now. And I’ve had nothing but good things to say about Tiffin as a company – they’ve stood behind their product, resolved the few issues we’ve had, and, provided excellent customer service.
But the actual experience of visiting Red Bay to get work done left a lot to be desired, and while many die-hard Tiffin fans will defend the company to the death, I think there’s value in being honest about things that could improve. Just because something “has always been done that way” doesn’t mean it should continue to be done that way forever. And that’s the whole thing about Tiffin – it operates exactly as it always has – for better and for worse.
On the good side, they stand behind their product and excel at customer service. Bob Tiffin, the owner of the company, is famous for actually picking up his phone and talking to the irate owners who call to gripe about whatever they’re mad at. Word is, he’s unfailingly nice and will bend over backwards to help make things right.
On the bad side, they insist on handling their business the same way they did 50 years ago – no matter how much their business has grown. In real terms, that means they take customers first come, first served – so your visit to this little beer-less, burger-less, duck fat fries-less town may last a couple days or a couple weeks. You won’t know until you’re there and your best source of information is a crowdsourced Facebook page where people share their current wait times.
Of course, all of this may change soon because Tiffin was recently bought out by a huge company, so perhaps the new owners will modernize things, but for us, we were stuck in the 1985 version. You know, the one where you register for your service by filling out a bunch of paperwork. With a pen. Like in the olden days.
Then, after they take your papers they send you off to go find somewhere to park while you wait for your service.
There are a couple “campgrounds” sprinkled around town – most of which are just tiny, unstaffed, first come/first served gravel parking lots with hook-ups that cost $25-$30 per night. (If your motorhome is less than a year old you can stay on Tiffin’s lot for free. Everyone else has to find a commercial site.)
Fortunately, about 3 years ago, someone had the bright idea of opening an actual campground in town! Heyyyyyy! There’s an idea! A campground!! With grass and a pond and a dog park and a store and a restaurant!
A place where people will happily shell out $60 per night to stay in a decent place with some actual amenities. WOW! Why did no one think of that before??
Seriously. Why did no one think of that before??
Tiffin has been in Red Bay for FIFTY years and it wasn’t until 3 years ago that someone decided to build an actual campground. And that campground was busy the entire time we were there. And we were there in February – low season.
And that’s my whole point. The opportunities for a town like this are endless. And yet…
Anyway, when you check in at the Tiffin Service Center to get on the wait list, the person at the front desk gives you a piece of paper to stick on your windshield. Then, every day, a Tiffin employee drives around town looking for those pieces of paper stuck on windshields. This is how they figure out where the new arrivals are staying. Once they find you, they knock on your door so they can go over what you need to have done and try to give you an approximate wait time. Then, at some point, your phone rings and someone at Tiffin tells you to bring your motorhome over to their service bay (‘right now’) to get your work done.
Now, could all of these things be done easily and efficiently with an online system? Could customers pre-register, make an appointment, reserve a site, and update their information online – reducing all of this unnecessary paperwork, and employees driving around town looking for new people, and customers sitting around waiting for their phone to ring and having to rush over to the Service Center?
Yes. They could.
Tiffin could just drag themselves into the 21st century and improve this entire process if they wanted to.
But hey! What has anyone ever accomplished by prioritizing efficiency to improve their customers’ experience?
Barney Goes to Red Bay
So, if this place is such a headache, why did we go there? Well, it goes back to what I said above. Tiffin is a good company that stands by its product.
Our motorhome came with Flexsteel furniture. Unfortunately, for several years, Flexsteel used a defective type of upholstery that eventually breaks down and falls apart. Like this:
It’s been a common, industry-wide problem for many years now.
When I emailed Tiffin to let them know we were seeing this issue, they offered to send us replacement covers to install on our own or, if we were willing to come to Red Bay, they would replace the upholstery for us for free. Since we wanted to have our carpeting re-done anyway, and we had a couple other mechanical issues we wanted to have addressed, we decided to just go to Red Bay and get everything done at once.
We arrived on a Sunday, checked in at the Tiffin Service Center to get on the waitlist, and went to our campground. On Monday, the drive-around-looking-for-new-people guy found us and told us the wait for regular work was 3-4 days, but that our upholstery work would be done by a different section of the company and we would have to check in with them separately.
So, on Tuesday we headed over to the furniture department to touch base with them. We waltzed right into the warehouse because this is Red Bay and no one cares what you do…
…and wandered around until we found the furniture division where we saw our name written on a white board below several others. (The white board is the high tech system they use to keep track of who’s waiting for what work.)
The manager of the furniture shop said he might be able to get us in at the end of that week. He said he would call when he got a better handle on their schedule.
On Thursday, we had an appointment with MSRV, one of the more popular outside vendors, to get our carpets replaced and to fix a couple minor interior items. They were great – quick, efficient, and they did high quality work.
The very next day, we were happy to get a call from the Tiffin Service Center telling us to pack up and come on over for our non-furniture repair items. I tossed the dog in the car while Kevin drove the motorhome to Tiffin. As instructed, he parked in a designated waiting area, plugged in, and then waited for another call in which they would tell him which specific bay to go to.
A few minutes later, he got a call telling him to drive over to Bay #8. I watched as he drove into the bay and assumed it would be just a minute before he came outside.
However, a couple minutes later Kevin texted me: “They’re going on their lunch break, so I have to wait until they’re back to talk to them, and if I leave the garage, I may get locked out, so I’m just gonna sit here.”
We had been warned by folks at our campground that nothing, and I mean nothing, comes between Tiffin employees and their lunch breaks. All of which is fine, but we wondered why they didn’t just tell us to drive over to the repair center after lunch? Wouldn’t that have made more sense?
Yes, it would have made more sense.
But in Red Bay, no one cares what makes sense.
Eventually, they got back from lunch, and started work on the list of things that needed attention – the driver’s seat electronics which would fail intermittently, and a problematic driver’s door power window.
However, after nearly two hours they called to tell us the seat electronics were all in good working order and they didn’t have the right motor to fix the window. Apparently, after taking the door apart to look at the motor, it took them almost two hours to send someone over to check inventory for possible replacement motors. Assuming that’s true, I, apparently, have more capability to check the inventory at DSW shoe store from my home computer than a Tiffin employee has to see his company’s inventory from his work station. If it’s not true, they just slow rolled our appointment so they wouldn’t have to take in another customer after us and they could call it a day (quitting time is 3:00 p.m.)
Even better, when we got home, Kevin noticed the door was now misaligned, so he took it apart and fixed it.
Later, he ordered the correct window motor and fixed that problem too.
So the whole thing was a gigantic waste of time.
And so ended week 1.
The next week begins and I start my daily ritual of staring at my phone willing the furniture guy to call.
He does not call.
In between staring-at-my-phone sessions, I walk around the campground and take note of our neighbor’s windshield solar cover. It is awesome.
This reminds me of another windshield cover I saw several years earlier in Kentucky:
It, too, was awesome.
I try to figure out which one is more awesome, but I cannot make a decision. Badass monochromatic murder-cat, or adorable colorful snuggle-floof?? Who can say which is better? Certainly not me. I just wish we’d gotten a cool one of Thor. #missedopportunity
Anyway, all this (completely pointless) deep analysis of camper decorations reminds me of the many campsite signs we’ve seen during our travels, many of which feature the last name of the people staying in the site… And since I have an unreasonable amount of time to kill, I spend several hours digging through my old photos looking for this gem:
Who knows? Maybe he liked camping…
In any case, while Red Bay may be slowly sucking the life out of us, the good news is the weather has been downright SPLENDID:
but also this:
Additionally, somewhere along the way, Kevin scratches his eyelid which somehow gets infected, necessitating a trip to the local walk-in medical care center for some antibiotics.
As day after day passes with no call from the furniture guy, we start to feel desperate. We begin celebrating even the tiniest of victories, like discovering these absolutely delicious frosted brownies at the local Big Star Supermarket.
Seriously – I’m not being sarcastic. These things were LEGIT!
Sadly, the Big Star is located directly across the street from a huge dog food plant.
Pro-Tip: If you’ve gone your whole life having never smelled dog food being made, consider yourself lucky and steer clear of Red Bay.
As the weather continues its positively delightful trend:
we begin thinking about our propane supply. Our electric heat only works to about 40 degrees. Below that, we rely on our propane, which provides a much higher quality heat, but we burn through it quickly.
Fortunately, in the middle of Red Bay, Alabama, the town that Tiffin built, where hundreds of motorhome owners camp on any given day of the year, and where it routinely gets very cold, there will be plenty of propane to go around, right? I mean, clearly, whomever designed Red Bay Acres Campground just 3 years earlier will have installed a giant propane tank, and there are probably numerous mobile propane distributors who service these campgrounds, right?
Can you see where this is going? Of course, you can.
Yup… No propane tank at the campground and no mobile dealers. According to folks on Facebook, there’s a tank behind some hardware store in Belmont, Mississippi – 20 minutes down the road.
Why???? Why is this town so utterly unprepared to deal with the clientele who show up all day, every day?
Fortunately, Thor is a highly perceptive dog who knows exactly how to make every situation better.
Question for a dog: “95% of the dog park is grass. 5% is mud. Your parents have just spent a pile of money to replace the carpet in the RV. It’s 40 degrees out. What do you do?”
But it gets better…
In an attempt to clean him off before he wrecks our brand new carpets, we wash him off with a garden hose. Thor, who loves swimming but hates getting wet, fights us tooth and nail as we try to rinse him off. That results in me getting soaked. That night, I notice my feet are terribly red and inflamed. Some quick googling reveals that I have a case of Chilblains – a condition where your skin becomes inflamed from being exposed to cold and damp. So now, I’m cold, bored, and my feet feel like they’re on fire.
Fortunately, just as we’re about to give up all hope of ever getting out of Red Bay in one piece, the furniture guy calls!!
It’s Friday and he says they can pick up the driver and passenger seats that afternoon and start working on them.
And they do!
Somewhere during this time, we get to go out for lunch with Bill and Beth – nice folks who happened to be marooned in Red Bay at the same time we were. And our old buddy, Jon, is at Red Bay Acres for a couple days too… so we get to see him.
Things are really looking up and we reward ourselves with a celebratory tray of delicious Big Star frosted brownies:
All goes well and by the end of the day on Monday of week 3, the furniture folks return us beautifully reupholstered chairs:
which don’t last 3 minutes before:
But we don’t even care because now we’re really cookin as they pick up the first half of our couch…
and then the second!
And then, just like that, at the end of the third week of our incarceration, the jail guards toss us the keys and tell us to get gone.
New upholstery, new carpets, and everything looks great…
We hightail it through Alabama,
Tennessee, where we spend the night at a very convenient, very affordable Love’s campsite:
and all of southern Virginia…
…before finally making it back to Washington
where Thor promptly barfs on the carpet.
Next up: Our recon trip to Lisbon!