Ben's Celebrates Chili Power

Since it opened in 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl has become a part of D.C. and is visited by neighbors, politicians and celebrities alike. The restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary in August 2008.
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

It was 1996, and Nizam Ali had just gotten his law degree. Instead of heading to the courtroom, he had another idea: He wanted to help run the family business.

Ali told his father, Ben, that if he couldn't double the revenue at Ben's Chili Bowl within a year, he'd fall back on that legal career. To meet his goal, he went well beyond the walls of the landmark restaurant on U Street NW. He became a promoter, visiting radio stations with free hot dogs, hamburgers and half-smokes -- all covered in Ben's trademark spicy chili. Radio personalities talked up the food, and the legend of the Chili Bowl grew.

Sales surged during that year as Nizam and his older brother, Kamal, oversaw the restaurant's operations -- so much so that Ben and his wife, Virginia, decided to step back and leave the restaurant they had founded in the hands of their sons.

This week, the District's most famous neighborhood diner turns 50. The family is hosting a free gala tonight at the Lincoln Theatre, with celebrities including Bill Cosby and Roberta Flack. That will be followed by a street festival tomorrow in front of the restaurant, at 1213 U St. NW, and a musical tribute Sunday down the street at the 9:30 club.

When they aren't behind the counter flipping burgers or scooping chili, the Ali brothers are figuring out ways to capitalize on the Ben's brand. They launched a line of souvenir baseball caps, key chains and tote bags. The Alis also helped with a book on the place's history and set up a Web site, And they struck a deal to sell Ben's fare at the Washington Nationals' new ballpark.

In October, the brothers will take over the building next door and turn it into a full bar, so patrons can enjoy Ben's chili and dogs with a beer or mixed drink, big screen TVs and possibly live bands.

"We're stepping up the game," said Kamal Ali, 46. Last year, Ben's took in about $1.6 million in revenue, up from less than $1 million about 10 years ago.

The brothers credit generations of loyal patrons and their employees for their success. "It took a village to raise this place. Everyone in this community had a hand in this place," said Nizam Ali, 38.

A third brother, Haidar, 48, is a musician and lives in California.

The walls at Ben's are covered with photos of famous customers, including actors Denzel Washington and Danny Glover, tennis star Serena Williams and musicians Bono and Chuck Brown. The restaurant has been featured on Oprah Winfrey's show (twice), CNN, the Travel Channel and the Food Network, as well as in travel publications across the country.

Virginia Ali can recall the day she got a phone call from a woman in Texas who wanted to make a reservation for her vacation in Washington -- three months away. "I laughed and told her: 'Honey, come on in. It's just a greasy spoon,' " she recounted through a hint of Virginia accent.

By far, Ben's biggest celebrity fan is Cosby, who will serve as master of ceremonies for tonight's Lincoln Theatre event. The comic helped propel Ben's to the national spotlight in 1985 when he held a news conference there to talk about his No. 1 television program, "The Cosby Show."

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