By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, April 19, 2010; 3
For 51 years, Ben's Chili Bowl has been a family-owned greasy spoon, a U Street fixture that bustled with hungry customers from breakfast to late at night.
Now it is on the verge of becoming a franchise.
Kamal and Nizam Ali, two of chili bowl founder Ben Ali's three sons, are considering extending the Ben's name into a chain that would bring the restaurant's famous chili and half-smokes to new locations locally and maybe around the world.
Even before their father died last October, the family had begun expanding the business, enlarging the original restaurant to accommodate peak crowds and tour buses, then signing a licensing deal to provide chili and half-smokes at Nationals Park. In 2008 the family opened an adjacent restaurant and bar, Ben's Next Door, and this February welcomed a visitors center, complete with a visual history of U Street and a Ben's gift shop.
Kamal Ali said that thanks to visits by Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he has received franchise inquiries from as far away as Australia and Brazil. "Everything's got to a point where I'm ready to consider the next thing on my plate," he said.
Ali, a father of 9-year-old twins, said the family doesn't have the time or staff to manage new restaurants itself, so he has begun talking with franchisers and consultants about the best way to expand. The family already contracts with a Pennsylvania facility to produce Ben's famous chili; about 60,000 pounds are made there annually for sales at Nationals Park and through the company's mail order business, which makes about 100 shipments a month. The agreement "kind of gave us a model for what we can do in the franchise world," Ali said.
Developers have salivated over bringing Ben's to their buildings for years. Developer Chris Donatelli said interest would run high. "It's unique in that it's destination-oriented fast food. You have people that will travel across the city for their fast food," he said. Tim Chapman, another developer, tried to woo the Ali brothers recently. "The thing about Ben's Chili Bowl is you know what you're getting when you walk in there," he said.
The brothers have begun taking an early look at locations. On April 14, they scouted Penn Branch Shopping Center in Southeast D.C., where developers from ICG Properties plan a restaurant space that could accommodate a Ben's Next Door. "We'll consider it," Ali said.
Any expansion will require more than replicating the food, said Michael Seid, a West Hartford, Conn., franchise adviser who has spoken with the Ali brothers.
"The risk to Ben's is that when it is replicated into a franchise, the franchise has to embody the culture of Ben's as much as it does the product and the delivery of Ben's."