The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Ben’s Chili Bowl model for outlasting segregation, upheaval and gentrification

Customers photograph themselves in front of Ben's Chili Bowl on U St. NW, during the early morning hours on July 16, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post.)

There is a yellow sign in the window at the original Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington, a place famous among meat-eaters for its half-smokes, that hints at how the narrow and boisterous storefront has evolved with the neighborhood around it:


Inside, the Chili Bowl is a mix of nostalgia (the stools at the counter are the originals) and subtle change (the menu is not quite). It has adapted and survived since 1958 through a tempest of change outside: through the last years of racial segregation, the riots and curfew that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the rough times left by those riots, and the even harder years in the 1980s when the city tore up the street outside to build a new subway line below.

Today, no less remarkably, the Chili Bowl is expanding in the face of another force that has overrun many longtime, minority-owned businesses in this changing city: gentrification.

"One of the hidden stories of displacement is that it affects businesses and not just residents," says Calvin Gladney, a real estate developer and consultant who works with cities and neighborhoods on urban revitalization projects.

We talk a lot about how how people can be uprooted and priced out of their homes when a neighborhood like U Street transforms over time around $2,000-a-month apartments and high-priced gastropubs. But long-entrenched businesses get nudged out, too, overwhelmed by rising commercial rents or by new residents looking to buy things they don't sell.

Gladney counters that the displacement of businesses doesn't have to be inevitable, and Ben's Chili Bowl is the centerpiece of his case. Of course, every hairdresser or corner store in town won't benefit from cameos by Barack Obama or scenes in the Pelican Brief. But the Chili Bowl has made a few other savvy moves that are replicable, starting with that turkey burger.

"These guys clearly got in front of the wave — or joined it, while it was still joinable," says Gladney, while eating, of all things on offer at the Chili Bowl, a turkey dog and bottled water.

The Chili Bowl put turkey burgers on the menu in the 1980s, around the same time as it made another bold move, banning smoking in the restaurant. The veggie dogs came much later, after requests from customers in the neighborhood.

"We're not so rigid," says Nizam Ali, one of Ben's three sons who now help to run the business (the family, he adds, includes a couple vegetarians). "Changing our menu doesn't change us or who we are."

This kind of evolution is a complicated act, because the goal isn't so much to reinvent a business for a new clientele as it is to expand service without alienating the people who spent money here before — the people who, in Chili Bowl lore, historically included at the counter a judge next to a janitor next to a junkie.

Signs of a similar effort are visible elsewhere in Washington, in banners that promote "craft beers" from the window of longtime liquor stores, or in the promise of "organic vegetables" from corner stores trying to keep up with the demographics now walking by. The challenge is arguably harder for nail salons and barber shops, two staples of minority neighborhoods. Earlier this spring, WNYC wrote about Harlem barbershops that have tried, not unselfconsciously, to signal that they can do white hair, too, with photos of white men in the window.

The changes the original Chili Bowl has made over the years have always been accompanied by a conscious effort to keep the core of the place as it was in the '60s. So the service works the same way: You order at the counter (cash only) and carry your own red plastic basket of half-smokes to your seat. The setting is the same: yellowed news clippings on the wall, throw-back chairs, black-and-white linoleum floor. So are many of the people: Ben's widow Virginia, now 81, is still likely to wander by inquiring over your lunch (Ben died in 2009).

And she'll sit and tell stories of the Chili's Bowl's past, if you ask. During the curfew around the '68 riots, the Chili Bowl was the only business in the area allowed to stay open because, as Virginia puts it today, "there had to be some place for city officials and activists to come together and try to quell the violence."

Over time, where the Alis wanted to make a more dramatic expansion to the business, they did that next door, at the sister restaurant that opened in 2008 called, well, "Ben's Next Door." There, they tried many of the things the original Chili Bowl doesn't do. The family got a liquor license and built a 53-foot bar that's meant to mimic the kind of community that grew up along the Chili Bowl counter. It opened a gift shop upstairs and offered sit-down service and reservations with a menu that includes brunch and apple-and-brie flatbread.

Next door, Ben's has morphed into the kind of business that opens on U Street today. And that location has, in fact, become more the local hang-out as the original Chili Bowl now draws judges next to janitors who are tourists.

All of these changes were made possible by two moves that have been the most important for the Chili Bowl's survival: In 1982 the family bought the original building it had rented since 1958. In 2004, it bought the long-vacant property next door. The Chili Bowl is now set to expand to a new location on H Street NE — and it bought that building, too.

"All of this business model goes away if the actual landlord says 'you can stay, but the rent will be three times as much,' " Gladney says. To control its fate in a changing neighborhood, a business has to control its real estate.

This is admittedly a tough ask for small businesses that operate on tight margins. But it underscores a broader strategy for any organization or agency trying to help longtime businesses stay put: They need help owning their own property.

"For us, this is how the Chili Bowl has remained," Nizam Ali says.

Owning property insulated the Alis from rising rents, provided the platform to expand, and made major new investments in the business worthwhile. Because why would you pour money into renovating a space — or even retouching a menu — if you don't control your fate next year?

Ali says that some of these other changes — the smoking ban, the turkey burgers — were more family preference than calculated business move with an eye toward the shifting neighborhood. But that may not be giving the family full credit.

"I would like to think that we had that kind of forethought," he says. "Honestly, I would have lost every dollar I had if someone asked me if I thought the neighborhood would be half of what it is now. It's hard to see when you've been in it so long, and seen it for so long — parts of it were very bad for so long.

"I'd probably bet money there would never be a Starbucks on U street."

Now there is one right across the street.

Arguably, the Chili Bowl is an important anchor opposite Starbucks — and a sign that something familiar can remain.