Co-manager and son of founders Ben and Virginia Ali
Monday, August 25, 2008 11:30 AM
D.C. culinary institution Ben's Chili Bowl turned 50 this month. Nizam Ali, son of founders Ben and Virginia, who runs the family business with his brother Kamal, was online Monday, Aug. 25 at 11:30 a.m. ET to take your questions about the restaurant's past, present and future.
A transcript follows.
Navy Yard: I "discovered" Ben's in 1997 two years after moving to DC when I was exploring U Street. Walked by the window, saw the halfsmokes grilling and knew it was the place for me. It's been my favorite restaurant in DC ever since. Wonderful food, friendly staff and great atmosphere. And I'm overjoyed about the Ben's at the Nats park. Congratulations and best wishes for continued success. Say hello to Tony and Maurice.
Nizam Ali: Thank you so much for your kind words. Maurice and Tony are both here now. I will tell them you said hello!
Washington, D.C.: I've never been to the restaurant, just driven by. I'm a vegetarian. Just curious, is there or will there ever be anything on the menu I can eat?
Nizam Ali: Absolutely! We have veggie chili made with TVP and we sell veggie burgers. Another popular item is our veggie chili cheese fries. The veggie chili with the TVP has a meat-like chewy texture. People have brought it back saying that we gave them our chili con carne by mistake!
Washington, D.C.: How does it feel to own one of the worlds most famous restaurants? Although I have been a Washingtonian 40-plus years, I have never been to Ben's Chili Bowl. I looked forward to coming one day I hope.
Nizam Ali: It feels amazing. This place is so loved by so many people. It is very humbling. Hope to see you soon!
Kensington, Md.: Has it really been 50 years? I remember going over to Ben's when I used to hustle nine ball at the old Lincoln Billiards across "You" Street in the late '60s, back when Lincoln and Ben's were among the few places in that area that a white boy like me felt welcomed.
Even before that, I also remember those ads you all ran during the Senators games when they played at Griffith Stadium, along the lines of "After the game, or after the 'boolfight,'" be sure to come over to Ben's "red hot Chili Bowl." They were among local radio's all-time great commercials.
Congratulations on showing what hard work combined with a great product can sometimes do. God bless all of you.
Nizam Ali: That is cool. We have always loved the fact that since day one in 1958 this has been a place for all people. Good for you to venture out and take in all that this city had to offer back then. Come by any time and tell share some stories with me about U Street back in the day. I love hearing them!
Washinton, D.C.: Your family have the same recipe. Was it ever given to someone besides a family member to make?
Nizam Ali: For the chili sauce, only my brother and I knew the recipe until this year. For our stands at Nats Park, we actually had to find a manufacturer to produce our chili and perfect the recipe in bulk with them. There was no way that we could make that much volume here at Ben's.
New Haven, Conn.: Every time that I'm in the DC area, I make my way to Ben's to enjoy a dog...lite on the chilli and lil' cheese. Can you estimate how many hotdogs and smokes have been sold in the past 50 years??
Nizam Ali: I wish I could. I honestly have no idea. It is amazing that we found some records of hot dog and half smoke sales back in 1960 and the numbers were huge. Around 400-500 per day!
Rocky Mount, NC: My name is Tony Stephens, and even though you don't know me, we've spoken inside the restaurant (you may remember me because of my right-limb amputation). Usually upon arriving in the District, my first stop is "Ben's" to have a bite and drop off NC Barbecue to employee's, and my last stop before leaving is "Ben's" to grab a care package for home. Every time I visit the restaurant, just feel comfortable in the ambiance, just special. I brought my wife there as Bill Cosby did Camille, because I wanted her to experience one of my joys in the District. The staff (especially Evette, Peaches and Mo) go out of their way to offer great customer service and a kind word, which means a lot each and every time.
I had planned to attend the celebration for a more than a year, and drove from NC to be a part of it. I enjoyed Thurs. and Fri., mingling with celebs and every day folks...everyone was a VIP. I will always continue to support you and yours, and if I can ever do anything to assist you to remain a "great servant to the masses," it would be my pleasure. May "Ben's" continue to be blessed.
Nizam Ali: Wow, thanks for the kind words. This weekend has been overwhelming and incredible. I am so happy that all of the events went so well and that you and so many others came down and took part in the celebration. May you and your family continue to be blessed as well!
Washington, D.C.: Hi Nizam, thanks for doing this today. What do you think it is about Ben's that has helped it last for so long compared to other places?
Nizam Ali: I honestly believe that it is not one thing but a combination of everything. Of course our family being here as much as possible makes a difference and naturally it helps if the food is good, but it really is you and all of the customers that spread the word and go out of their way to share Ben's with those that don't know about Ben's. Mr. Cosby has been great spreading the word as are our friends in the press. People love this place and they tell others about it.
Alexandria, Va.: I've heard of Ben's for many years, but as a suburbanite, I don't get to U St. very often -- actually never. Any plans to expand or franchise like 5 Guys?
Nizam Ali: It's funny, there are a lot of people that don't come to DC I hear. It really is pretty easy to get here and the neighborhood is now as safe as any other so I hope you do make it one day. Even if we do expand, this is the location you need to visit. This is the one with the history and that unique feeling.
We are expanding next door to create a bar with hopefully the same feeling as Ben's, but we never want to change Ben's itself in any way.
We have looked into franchising but the decision is bigger than just money. It is about maintaining the quality and integrity of the original Ben's and it is also a quality of life issue for my brother and I and our families. We both have young kids we love to spend time with.
Washington, D.C.: What are some of the biggest changes Ben's has gone through during the last 50 years? And how does your family feel about the gentrification of the U St. area?
Nizam Ali: The changing demographic of our core customers as well as the changes and growth in and around our neighborhood are the biggest changes. Change is inevitable, you can't stop it. Gentrification and the property value increases associated with it have forced out many of our older residents on a fixed income. That is very sad to me. On the other hand, the blighted buildings from the riots and drug years are now homes and businesses again and that is great. At the end of the day, we still welcome all patrons and are excited that people are still coming to Ben's.
Washington, D.C.: I frequently patronize your restaurant, but why does Ben's not accept credit cards for the convenience of its customers?
Nizam Ali: My dad is very old school and hates paying fees, even if it ultimately brings in more money. It is very adamant about not accepting credit cards. We did just install a Micros POS system which we are working on tweaking to work with our crazy system. We are testing credit card use as we speak. Hopefully it will be up fully soon.
Washington, D.C.: I've always loved Ben's Chili Bowl, but I noticed they no longer split the half smokes when they're grilled. You have to order it special now; I can't remember if this was always the case and I just forgot that I had to ask for my half smoke split, or if the system changed at some point. Can you help clear this up?
Nizam Ali: Yes, we happily split half-smokes upon request but don't typically do it unless they are not ready to be served and we need to split them to get them ready faster. To my knowledge this has always been the case. Some folks like them split and grilled and some do not so if that's the way you like them, just say that you want them split!
"[T]he neighborhood is now as safe as any other": I'll vouch for that. I first visited Ben's in 1998 when the Post ran an article about your 40th anniversary. I grew up out in Fairfax and some of my friends thought I was nuts as a white guy driving my car down to U Street. No problems at all (I even found a parking space out front!) and the staff really welcomed everybody. I remember one time sitting at the counter watching football and Mayor Barry came in and sat down at the stool next to me. You really run into everyone.
I don't get up to Ben's as often as I'd like, so I'm quite glad you're operating at the ballpark!
Nizam Ali: Thanks. We feel that when patrons come into Ben's that they are coming into our home. I am glad you always feel comfortable here. And yes, you never know who is going to walk in the door!
Lexington, Mass.: We have encountered many fan's of "The Bowl" way up here in Massachusetts. It's fun to wear a Ben's T-shirt almost 500 miles away from D.C. and have strangers approach us with a smile. Our kid's seventh grade math teacher cheered when they came to school in Ben's T-shirts one day. It's like being a member of a great big friendly club. It has everything to do with the atmosphere you, Kamal,your parents and employees have created. And of course, those half smokes!
Nizam Ali: It is so funny how many people from so far away know about this place. I was visiting a friend in South Africa and we went to see a dance troupe perform. Someone saw me and yelled out, "where is my turkey burger!" It was some brothers from Howard that were there dancing with the South African troupe. Small world.
West Coast: I moved out of DC to the West Coast a long time ago. Not a Saturday night doesn't go by without me craving some chili fries. VIVA LA CHILI BOWL!
Nizam Ali: That is sweet. With our having a manufacturer to make the chili for the ballpark, we are working on them packaging it in smaller containers. Being a USDA approved facility, we are hoping later this year to be able to ship our chili and our half-smokes all around the country through a store on our Web site. Stay tuned! Doubt we can ship the chili cheese fries though. :)
Nationals Park, Section 313: What were some of your concerns about opening in Nationals Park? Has the business there made that location worthwhile ?
Nizam Ali: The business there has made the venture worthwhile, though the team has a horrible record and attendance is bad. The out-pouring of love as been great out there. People come up in line and say "I am so happy that you are here."
The concerns were that we have to make sure the quality and the taste is the same. And we tried to duplicate the experience by installing speakers and bringing our own music. We also have some of our best, Maurice and Rob, there every game overseeing the operation.
Nizam Ali: Thanks so much everybody for supporting Ben's for all of these years. We look forward to serving you for 50 more! And for those of you who haven't made it to Ben's yet, what are you waiting for? THANK YOU!!!
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