Ben's Chili Bowl: A spicy landmark in the nation's capital
Six decades after its founding, the beloved restaurant is run by the second generation, with Mom still a regular presence.
Tucked away on a once-trendy, once-forsaken, now-trendy-again street in Washington, D.C., stand two national monuments perhaps less publicized but certainly as beloved as the museums and memorials that make the nation’s capital a top tourist destination.
One is the world-famous Lincoln Theatre, built in 1922 and venue for jazz and big band performers of legend, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong. The prominence of the theater and its star-studded calendar helped create what became known as Black Broadway in the middle of downtown.
The other, equally renowned, is the original Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened on Aug. 22, 1958, under the management of co-owners Ben and Virginia Ali. More than six decades later, Virginia still makes the rounds at her two D.C. locations: 1213 U St. N.W., a historic site in its own right (initially the Minnehaha, the first silent movie theater in Washington, built in 1910), and 1001 H St. N.E. She offers quiet guidance, chili-making secrets and a historical perspective to the second generation, her three sons and their spouses now running the business, and the emerging third generation of three grandchildren.
The early days
A young Ben Ali, firstborn to a Muslim Indian family in then-British Trinidad and Tobago, immigrated to the United States in 1945 to pursue his studies at the University of Nebraska, with plans for a medical career.
That dream was short-circuited when he fell down an elevator shaft and broke his back. In the end, he received his college diploma from Howard University.
Along the way, Ben met Virginia Rollins and made plans to marry. But before they did, the two lovebirds took a giant step together and signed a five-year lease for a restaurant location on U Street in the heart of downtown. Ben and Virginia shared a love of spicy foods, Ben made a mean chili and they knew they had a great product. Determined to control their own destiny, they scraped together $5,000, a princely sum at the time, and launched a business.
“We both were working, so we were able to put together our own funding,” Virginia Ali, known as Mom by one and all, remembers. “It seemed like a lot at the time, and it still does.” The lease was signed, local contractors were engaged, suppliers were enlisted and what would become the flagship restaurant opened with Ben, or Pop, at the door and Mom behind the counter. Seven weeks later they married. Performers and concertgoers from the Lincoln started a parade of celebrities and politicians that augmented a built-in local clientele of hungry diners looking for something different.
“We wanted to be self-employed,” Mom says, “and the restaurant business looked good. Ben felt that there were already many hamburger joints in the neighborhood. We wanted to stand out, and the Ben’s Original Half-Smoke and Chili was our recipe for success. It turned out that people really appreciated this bright new shiny place called Ben’s.”
What Ben and Virginia couldn’t see in those early years was the impact the gradual erosion of segregation would have on their restaurant. As the local Black population began to experiment with newfound freedoms, the economy of U Street took a hit. Restaurants just a few blocks away that had been off limits to Black patrons suddenly became alluring. At the same time, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, white-owned businesses started moving onto U Street, “and Black Broadway was slowly erased from history.”
But the Alis were busy with the restaurant and even busier with the arrival of three sons: Haidar (nicknamed Sage), then Kamal and then Nizam. A growing business and a growing family consumed all waking hours. To make sure there was always a “Ben” in the store, all three boys were given the middle name Ben, Mom says with a smile.
A terrible day, two terrible decades
When you’re about to celebrate your 10th anniversary as a successful small family business, it’s tempting to feel like you’ve really made it. Business along the U Street corridor had made a comeback and was brisk. Performers, staffers and patrons continued to stream in from the Lincoln next door. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in 1964 and 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set up a satellite office of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference a few doors away from Ben’s and started to pop in from time to time when he was in town for lunch with staff and visitors. The Great Society was on the march and the future looked bright.
Such was the atmosphere at the Bowl in the early spring of 1968, but the assassination of Dr. King on April 4 that year changed everything. Rioters essentially burned U Street to the ground, sparing only a few businesses, including Lincoln Theater and the Chili Bowl.
“When the first person came into the store and said Dr. King had been shot, we just couldn’t believe it,” Mom recalls. “A few hours later we heard on the radio that he had died. It was a very scary time. People came in crying, and then frustration led to anger, which led to uprising.”
Mom recalls with pride being asked by the city government to stay open as much as possible during those four days of turmoil, and the Bowl served activists, protesters, first responders, local police and the National Guard side by side. Activist organizer Stokely Carmichael asked D.C. mayor Walter Washington to exempt Ben’s Chili Bowl from the curfew so people could have a comfortable place to gather and eat. The mayor said yes.
But the damage was done. From a fading but fabled history as Black Broadway, U Street was plunged into a darkness that reigned for 20 years. The twin scourges of heroin and crack cocaine dealt a virtual death blow to anything but very local patronage. Even people who knew and loved the Chili Bowl did not venture into the mean streets bracketing the store’s location.
The next hard hit, ironically, had been sold to the public as a revitalizing force: the Washington Metro. As luck would have it, construction of the U Street Station and the underground subway tracks, which began in 1987, required a hole 60 feet deep along U Street as well as the boarding up of much of the street front. Available parking was blocks away. Virginia and a single employee kept the store open for those difficult years until the station and Metro’s Green Line finally opened in May 1991.
“What had been a disaster for the Bowl turned into a godsend,” Mom says. On opening day for the U Street Station, Ben’s posted a banner reading, “We Survived Metro.” Suddenly, folks from all over town could meet and eat at Ben’s. Business began a steady pace of rebuilding, and Mom started hiring, always with an eye to Ben’s original vision, mission and values.
With the renewed popularity of the Bowl and the widening scope of customers and friends, one thing led to another. In 1994 Ben’s Chili Bowl won the prestigious James Beard Award as one of America’s Classics. By then, the Bowl had been serving up what is now widely recognized as the signature dish of the nation’s capital for more than three decades. It had become the down-home go-to place for Washingtonians and friends from everywhere.
So much so that in 2009, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty brought President-Elect Barack Obama and some of his staff to the Bowl for lunch and good cheer. Mom remembers that visit as one of the proudest days of Ben’s life. And Obama isn’t the only politician, entertainer or celebrity to make a stop at the Bowl. Just ask George Bush or Dave Chappelle, Bono or Serena Williams, or even Pope Francis!
All in the family
The years since 1958 have flown past, and the Ali family has not given too much attention to the documents, covenants and structures that undergird many successful multigenerational family enterprises. Even six decades later, Ben’s Chili Bowl retains the cachet of a true mom-and-pop family business. It has remained a small business with fewer than 50 employees.
Ben died in 2009, leaving Mom as sole owner. All three sons already had entered the business as executives without portfolio. Sage’s wife, Vida, says even today there are barely formal titles within the company’s organization chart, and those titles are invoked only when some legal or licensing issue requires the signature of the CEO or another company officer. Vida could call herself chief brand officer, but she’s more likely to just say that she handles public and media relations.
“Chief cook and bottle washer” simply cannot be sustained over more than a generation or two, and the family is looking at how best to transition the business from Mom to her sons. They are all equal partners and co-heirs, with two wives working at Ben’s Chili Bowl as well. It’s a bit unclear if the third generation will follow their parents into the hospitality arena, but that door is open. “We want them to be free to pursue their own passions and goals,” says Kamal. “We would be thrilled if any or all of them wanted to take charge downstream. But we’ve got another couple of good decades left in us.”
The Alis hold an all-family meeting on Thursday afternoons, and discussion of late has included consideration and creation of key family documents, a succession plan, formalizing transfer of the business and a potential move to non-family executive management. In fact, says Vida, “The opportunity to work with Family Business Magazine has refocused us on some key processes that should be addressed sooner than later.”
When reputation is bigger than the business
The stellar global reputation of Ben’s Chili Bowl has created new business opportunities. When the three sons divvied up responsibilities for a growing organization, Kamal took retail, Sage began looking at expansion and franchising, and Nizam selected e-commerce.
“I have a real passion for e-commerce,” Nizam says. “We have shipped to all 50 states and to countries around the world. If you can’t come to the Bowl, we’ll come to you.” Likewise, adds Kamal, at more and more venues around the country you’ll be able to find Ben’s Chili Bowl products, including the half-smokes, the chili con carne and the veggie chili. “We’ve been at Costco for a few years, and we want to engage additional big box and brick-and-mortar retail outlets,” he says. “We’re making a real effort to diversify.”
“One tenet of our philosophy, which comes from Mom and Pop, is that the right partner is just as important as the right location,” Vida says. She is putting out the word that Ben’s Chili Bowl is open to discussions with interested parties, including potential franchisees. “If you’re in the hospitality business, if you know and love Ben’s Chili Bowl, and if you see a future in growing with us, we want to hear from you,” she says.
It’s all part of projecting a larger footprint for a beloved food product. Sage, the lead on franchising, has seen some ups and downs as the COVID-19 crisis has played out around the world. The original store and the H Street location are the anchors of the organization. He and the family have engineered a number of local franchises, including a stand at D.C.’s Reagan International Airport, one at Nationals Park baseball stadium, one for the Washington Football Team at FedEx Field and another at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore. Beyond the region, the world is waiting, he says.
What the future holds
Like restaurants nationwide, the Bowl has struggled during the pandemic. “COVID-19 has been devastating to our business,” says Vida. “We went down 90% in just a few weeks. We hadn’t really focused on the fact that we had evolved into a tourist destination as well as a local restaurant and gathering place. The tour buses stopped pulling up out front, that just completely disappeared.” As of mid-September, however, business had returned to around 50%, which Vida attributes to “the outpouring of love and support from our local community.”
Nizam, channeling his father, says, “The fun of our family is being able to take charge of our passions and see where we can go with them.” For more than 60 years, that passion has driven the phenomenon known worldwide as Ben’s Chili Bowl. With the U Street flagship location and Ben’s Chili Bowl on H Street, the business is hanging on, and the family sees a bright future ahead. Inquiries from potential partners have come in from places as far-flung as Switzerland, Dubai, Singapore, Australia, and China, as well as many states in the U.S. “There’s a real appetite out there for Ben’s chili,” Kamal says.
“We’re giving it our best shot every day,” says Mom, with a philosophy that “this too shall pass.” The Bowl, Mom says, has seen a lot of changes over the past 62 years, and has weathered many different storms. “The pandemic,” she says, “is certainly something that we never faced in my lifetime. It’s the most challenging thing we have ever encountered because it involves illness and even worse.” At the same time, Mom adds, “we’re still fighting for civil rights, just like we were in August 1958.”
Nonetheless, Mom hits the original U Street Ben’s nearly every day. “I just can’t wait to hang out at the Chili Bowl. We’re strong, we’re together, and we can’t fail.”
VIRGINIA ALI ON BLACK LIVES MATTER, FALL 2020:
“I remember Dr. King stopping in the Chili Bowl to share his dream with us. I remember that his whole philosophy was nonviolence — let’s demonstrate nonviolently — and it was effective.
“We were able to pass the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, the Voting Rights Bill in 1965. But today we still have problems, our basic human rights are still being violated, our sons and daughters are suffering at the hands of the police today.
“We’ve got to find a way to make systemic change in the laws of our country, and I am so grateful to all the demonstrators who have protested peacefully. We’ve had so many that are just agitators, and that certainly does not help the cause.
“We cannot continue to destroy our communities. We’ve got to come together in harmony and peace and love and demonstrate nonviolently, as Dr. King taught us to do, and make this change. We’re going to get it done. And please try to get it done before I leave this earth. I’m 86 years old. Thank you so much. I love you all.”
Virginia Ali reaches her 87th birthday on December 17.
Ben’s Mission, Vision and F.A.M.I.L.Y. Values
Our mission is simple: to provide great food and a fun, memorable experience where team members are like family and visitors are embraced as guests in our home.
Our vision is to bring a small piece of our home to diverse communities throughout the world. We believe that each restaurant reflects our home and is the heart of the community in which it is embedded. Ben’s is a place where people come to soak up a rich and growing history, build lasting friendships and experience the great food, service and personal attention that they deserve.
Ben’s F.A.M.I.L.Y. Values are an integral part of providing our guests with an unforgettable experience. We strive to incorporate these values into everything we do and in all our interactions.
Friendship — Friendship is something to be cherished, and we do our best to treat each individual with respect and honesty as we would our friends, in hopes of creating strong, lasting relationships.
Appreciation — We always look for ways to connect with, laugh with, and uplift the lives of everyone we come in contact with, even if just for a few moments. This way, our actions show how much we truly value them.
Motivation — We constantly strive to motivate each other, because we believe that when we are inspired and show genuine love for everything we do, our guests will feel the warmth that makes Ben’s so unique.
Inclusion — When people feel a sense of belonging, our restaurants become a haven, a break from outside worries and a place where they can feel at home.
Love — We commit ourselves to interact both professionally and personally with each other and those we serve in a courteous, kind and respectful manner. We go the extra mile to show that we care.
You — The most important value we have is people, because without great people we would not exist. We hold ourselves accountable in making sure that our guests know they always come first.
Ben’s Mantra: Great Food Today, Good Friends Tomorrow, Fun and Family Forever!
We are committed to:
• Exceeding the expectations of our guests
• Providing a workplace that enhances the lives of our team members
• Maintaining a company vision which stimulates growth and profitability
We believe that success and profitability can only be achieved with wholehearted support from each and every team member. Because we recognize how important you are, we have made a firm commitment to:
• Create a workplace where all team members are recognized and respected for their contributions.
• Provide the direction and leadership necessary to ensure that every team member has a part in making Ben’s a success.
• Promote teamwork. It is our policy to handle team members fairly and honestly and to respect and recognize each as an individual. In addition, we strive to provide opportunities for growth and development wherever possible. You were selected from other applicants to work at Ben’s because we believe you have the ability, desire and energy to contribute to our team. Through your contribution, you can help create an opportunity for your personal and professional growth.
The Mission, Vision, Values and Philosophy were created back in 1958 and were codified in 2012 as a document that can be shared with team members, partners, suppliers and others working with Ben’s Chili Bowl.
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