For Ben’s Chili Bowl, expansion comes with responsibility

August 21, 2013

The family of Ben Ali carries the legacy of a city on its members’ backs. The owners of Ben’s Chili Bowl, who have fed Washingtonians chili, hot dogs, half-smokes and other eats for generations on U Street,  is nearly the sole representative of an era of the city that has passed all of us by.

But even as the Alis get ready to welcome Bill Cosby on Thursday to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Ben’s Chili Bowl – on Chuck Brown’s birthday, no less – one can’t help but think more toward the future than the past.

Yes, the iconic walls lined with photos from yesteryear are a marvel, but what about the next step? That question has led the family to expansion. And, perhaps appropriately enough, the family’s expansion plan has led it to another historic thoroughfare: H Street NE.

“The initial idea was, where would be the most logical place for us to go? What has a very similar history and a kind of similar path as U Street?” Nizam Ali, the youngest son of Ben, said of the new spot. “It has a great culture, a great history, a great African American history. And I think it’s the perfect place to go.”

The location, at 10th and H streets NE, is on the site of the old George’s Place Ltd. store, a big-and-tall men’s shop. George Butler, the man who owned the place since right after the 1968 riots that devastated much of the H Street NE and U Street NW corridors, put it up for sale in 2011. With its corner plot and massive bay windows, it’s a great location.

But what does expanding mean for the Ben’s Chili Bowl brand and, by extension, for its role as a history lesson in the District? After all, the fact that there is really only one Ben’s is what makes it unique. Sure, there’s Ben’s Next Door, but that’s a different experience with a different crowd and feel. It’s not designed to be the same. Is it possible that growing into another location could dilute Ben’s meaning to the city? It’s a responsibility that the brothers, and the family, said they take very seriously. It isn’t just about selling chili.

“I think our role here, as the community has gentrified and as the community has changed, has been to kind of be that anchor to maintain that history and to share that history with others,” Nizam Ali said on a recent morning, while he handled business at the store. “Our plan [for H Street] is to really help hold the history of that great street. And of that great community.”

But let’s be honest. Ben’s hasn’t been the same for many natives for quite a long time. In the past decade, newer neighborhood residents and visitors made what used to be a fun late-night run into a crush of needy, hungry bar patrons. And when President-elect Barack Obama popped by in 2009, the place was forever changed. Understandably, it became a tourist location that people would travel from world afar to see. It was featured on TV shows, and other dignitaries started showing up for chili. Soon afterward, the Alis realized they had to expand.

“It’s just a numbers game. If we’d put one or two or three around, it’d be because it’s just gotten that popular. Our folks ain’t going to come and stand in a line for 30 minutes,”  Kamal Ali said. But he thinks they have to take care of those that have taken care of them. “But we saw a place when we were in New Orleans do it. The local line was different than the tourists. They had signs on the doors explaining it. I don’t know how they did it. We were in the tourist line, the long line, so I don’t know. It was something written. ‘Dear guests, for all the locals that have kept us here this long, please understand that we will serve them first, [etc].’ ”

Instead of that, the Alis decided to open another store. And, in some ways, H Street is a metaphorically perfect place to open: With more bars and clubs moving to a strip that was once lined with African American businesses, the strip has its own gentrification politics.  But most important to those in that area, the new Ben’s will provide daytime foot traffic.

Because this is today’s D.C., not everyone is rolling out the welcome mat. For several patrons at a local business across the street, Ben’s hasn’t been affordable for years.

Whether one patron will come back “depends on the prices,” said a man who went by the name Roy. “For my age, day to day, month to month, it’s kind of rough for me dealing with prices like that. I used to go down to Ben’s Chili Bowl and get three half- smokes, three sodas and three fries. It was $18 and something. I ended up going in there” eight or 10 years ago.  ” I ain’t been back there since.”  These days, that meal would cost closer to $50.

As Ben’s considers new ways to grow as a product, and as a community hub, the family has only one real plan: staying true to themselves. They’ve conquered stadiums — they have several small satellite venues at Nats Park and FedEx Field — and are considering airport locations. Although selling out to grocery stores or Walmart was never an option, don’t count out the suburbs.

“We’re looking at the whole DMV. [It’s] a fantastic market, great business, great for restaurants,” Kamal Ali said. Riding with Nizam Ali from U Street to H Street last month, we counted cranes and talked about development. The inside of the new location was still just dirt and walls, with a vision to go with it. The idea is to stack what is Ben’s Chili Bowl with Ben’s Next Door, on top of one another. With a roof deck.

That day, an outdoor barricade covered up the old George’s signs. A woman in a hairdresser apron walked by smoking a cigarette talking on a portable, not cellular phone. Next door, sits a field office for the city’s Department of Transportation.

“It’s interesting to see our city change, man,” Nizam said, as we left the site.

Now, let’s just hope Obama doesn’t show up.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Mark Berman · August 19, 2013