Magazine

Ben Ali's Way


In 1958, 30-year-old Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, opened Ben's Chili Bowl on Washington's U Street. Since then, Washingtonians have flocked to the Chili Bowl through riots, drug wars, and, more recently, gentrification. In 1999, the city renamed an adjoining alley Ben Ali Way. Now, Ben's sons Kamal, 44, and Nizam, 35, run the joint and dish out chili dogs, chili burgers, and homemade sides. What follows is Kamal's account of how the business put down roots and his philosophy for keeping it running. The chili recipe, however, stays strictly off-limits.

SCARY TIMES

Dad's from the Caribbean and loved spicy food. He was always looking for ways to liven up American burgers. He and Mom opened Ben's Chili Bowl on Aug. 22, 1958, with $10,000 of Dad's savings. Dad was so broke that he almost forgot to buy a cash register. He borrowed a little money for that.

Back then, U Street was known as the Black Broadway. Everything was here -- the jazz clubs, theaters.

Then came the riots in 1968. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Stokely Carmichael asked Dad not to close. We were one of the only places allowed to stay open after curfew to help feed the emergency workers, police, fire department, and the activists. Dad had to soap up the window and write "Soul Brother" in the soap to keep from being burned out. People were so angry and acting out. You literally feared for your life.

From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, the neighborhood got really bad. There were lots of drugs and junkies on the corners. We stayed and had a following, because the Chili Bowl was like the neighborhood barbershop. People would sit here and chat. There was always a family presence and the locals protected us. No matter how bad it got, nobody was going to disrespect Mr. and Mrs. Ben.

In the last few years, U Street has been completely revitalized. I imagine it's more like it was when Ben's first opened. Sales have grown at least 10% a year, to about $1.5 million, since the early '90s. We have 20 employees.

PASSING THE BATON

I started working at the Chili Bowl as a kid. My first memories are of counting the coins from the jukebox or cigarette machine. As I got older I would come down to sweep the floors. Today Nizam and I run the joint with Mom and Dad's continued input and support. We also have some teenage cousins working here. We are grooming them to possibly carry on the tradition, as our kids are so much younger.

Dad didn't know which of his sons, if any, would join the business, but he gave all of us the middle name Ben, so whoever did go into the business could claim the name. I have twins, a five-year-old boy and a girl, and my son's middle name is Ben, too.

Dad has been retired for 20 years, but at 78, he still influences any big decisions. Mom still comes down and schmoozes with the customers.

Dad is every bit the patriarch. The Chili Bowl is his baby. Sometimes that is a challenge, but I just stay real cool and say: "You know what, Dad, you're the king. You're the boss. Whatever you want to do, we're going to do. I serve at your pleasure."

As the second generation, we make changes very carefully. About a dozen years ago, I expanded the hours and the menu to include breakfast. We also have veggie burgers and chili and turkey burgers and dogs. We're trying to buy the building next door and maybe add a liquor license there.

My goal as the next generation is not to be the one who screwed up the family business. I've seen it happen so many times. Our thing is to keep the grease on the walls. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. One piece of advice Bill Cosby -- a regular customer -- gave us was keep the place the same, keep it simple.

At the end of the day, if someone came along and offered me $20 million, could I sell the business and live in this town? No! I would have to move! I would be the guy who sold out -- who gave up Ben's Chili Bowl. So the preserving of this history is bigger than me, it's even almost bigger than the business.

As told to Gay Jervey


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