Can Ben’s Chili Bowl Expand and Keep Its Soul?
By 3:30 p.m. the day after Ben’s Chili Bowl opened its new location in Rosslyn last week, the line still stretched to the very back of the restaurant. It’d been that way, if not curving down the sidewalk, since 11 a.m., said co-owner Nizam Ali, when a crowd was already waiting for the doors to be unlocked.
That much it has in common with the historic U Street NW locale, which even now seems to draw a crowd no matter what hour of the day. But the new spot feels more like an ode to Ben’s Chili Bowl than Ben’s Chili Bowl itself. A photo and text display as long as the line details the history of Ben’s, like a Smithsonian exhibit, from 1958 when “a landmark is born” to the place’s perseverance through the 1968 riots and construction of the U Street Metro, which shut down fellow businesses, to the 2009 visit from President-elect Barack Obama. On the opposite wall are photos of the many celebrities who’ve visited the flagship Ben’s over the years—Bono, Anthony Bourdain, Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson—just like at 12th and U. Except instead of the originals in mismatched frames, the replicate images are neatly clustered on placards.
The overall look is like a Ben’s without the wear (or the patina) of the years. The new restaurant has similar tables and glittery red chairs from the same company that produced the originals. An electronic jukebox, rather than an old-school one, plays Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. Even the lighting somewhat mimics the fluorescent glow of the original.
The Arlington Ben’s Chili Bowl is the restaurant’s first new standalone location in 55 years. It will be joined by an outpost on H Street NE by the end of the summer and another at Reagan National Airport at the end of May. The restaurant already has stands at Nationals Park and FedEx Field, not to mention Ben’s Next Door, a more upscale twist on Ben’s, on U Street NW. The expansion marks a new era for Ben’s since founder Ben Ali, who passed away in 2009, entrusted the restaurant to his sons Nizam, Kamal, and Sage.
But what makes Ben’s D.C.’s most iconic restaurant is its history and its location. So what happens when it has neither of those? The pressure on the Ali family, more so than any other growing restaurant business, is how to take more than five decades of half-smokes, celebrities, grit, and soul, and transfer it all to a new location that feels authentic, not like some Disneyfied version of the original.
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Ben Ali, who opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 with his wife Virginia Ali, never really wanted to expand the business. “When everyone asked, ‘Ben, how come you don’t have any more Chili Bowls?’ He said, ‘How many more Chili Bowls do I need?’” says Nizam Ali.
His father also feared the economic risk. “He watched a lot of TV when it was all about the recession,” Nizam says. “Recession, sequestration, a million things going on with the economy. It’s always something.” That fear carried over to the opening of Ben’s Next Door. “He was like, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing and I don’t know if you’re going to succeed...’ It was a really big investment, buying the building, doing all that buildout. Businesses fail. Restaurants fail. It’s not a guarantee.”
Ben Ali was so concerned that he didn’t step foot in Ben’s Next Door until several months after it had opened. Finally, Nizam convinced him to just come in and take a look. “He wouldn’t go in. He was scared.” Nizam says. “When he did come in, it was really cool. He was like, ‘Sons, I owe you an apology.’ The place was booming, and he was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know.’”
Seeing what his sons were doing and how they were working together, Ben eventually gave his blessing for them to expand, not long before he died in October 2009, the family says.
As for this year’s wave of expansion? “It was time,” Nizam says. Plus, the whole family is now involved in the business, including his two brothers, their wives, and a cousin. “It’s a little stepping on toes when we’re all in the same place every day.”
The family didn’t necessarily anticipate opening three places in six months, but between financing and leases and construction, that’s the way it worked out. Nizam says this year is all about testing a few different models and seeing what works. The Rosslyn location at 1725 Wilson Blvd., where Ray’s Hell Burger used to be, is an experiment in how Ben’s will fare in a more suburban location and in Virginia. The H Street NE location, the most similar to U Street NW in terms of the neighborhoods, will be the largest of those planned, with a traditional Chili Bowl on the first floor and another concept tentatively called Ben’s Upstairs serving alcohol and other food on the second floor and roof deck. The airport location will also be a sit-down spot, rather than exclusively grab-and-go. But unlike the standalone eateries, which are operated exclusively by the Ali family, the terminal restaurant will be run by another company.
Once the Alis get everything set up the way they want it, they hope to expand even more. The family has already started to look into possible franchise options. Nizam says they’re not opposed to someday expanding nationally, although they’re focused on the region in the immediate future.
“This is really a legacy. This is really a family thing,” Nizam says. “It’s really not about, ‘Hey, let’s go take over the world,’ or ‘Let’s go and make all the money we can.’ We’re community-oriented. We want to grow responsibly. We also want to be a part of the communities that we go into.”
Under the direction of Ben Ali’s sons, Ben’s Chili Bowl has also started to modernize. For starters, you can use a credit card at the new locations. Ben Ali refused to pay credit card fees at the U Street Ben’s, and out of respect for his wishes, the flagship restaurant will continue to only accept cash. “We don’t want dad to look down at us and frown. He’ll find a way to get us if we do,” Nizam says.
Within the past six months, Ben’s also introduced “healthy choices” like a salad bowl and a rice bowl with vegetarian or meat chili, tomatoes, onions, and cheddar cheese on top. “We’re not so set in our ways. We believe in good health. We want people to eat healthy and have healthy options,” Nizam says. The salad bowl is a nice gesture, but the undressed greens wilt under the heat of the chili, making it less appetizing in execution. Plus, who really goes to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a salad?
You can’t begrudge the Ali family for expanding a successful brand. But no matter what approach they take, it’s impossible not to lose something in translation. A half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street is satisfying in the same way that a Budweiser is at a ballgame. It’s better because of the experience you have with it, not just the product itself. Out of context, it’s easy to fall short.
The Ali family is obviously thinking about that, too. “You don’t want to build a new place and fake it and make it look old, like artificial ’50s looks,” Nizam says. At the same time, his family has tried to replicate some touches, like the jukebox and the glittery chairs. A week before opening, Nizam says it felt like something was missing: the yellow stripe painted on the window with “Chili Bowl” in cursive red. “We put that on, and now it’s starting to feel like home.”
While the community feel of U Street isn’t something that can be airlifted to Rosslyn, Nizam hopes to build it over time. The Arlington location has empty space on the wall to make room for photos of any other celebrities who might decide to stop by, and he’s hoping to have a “community wall” recognizing sports teams, schools, and other local notables. “I’d love for people to take ownership of this location,” he says.
Another thing that will remain the same across all future locations: Bill Cosby and the Obama family—“and no one else”—eat free.
Nizam recalls the restaurant’s famous “People Who Eat Free” sign used to be a grease-stained piece of paper that had been ripped and scribbled on. But one day several years ago, he realized it had been replaced by a much nicer sign in protective plastic with a red and yellow border and the Ben’s logo. “I was really so mad,” Nizam admits. “Where’s the original? Who trashed the sign with the chili stains on it?”
The Arlington Ben’s doesn’t have a sign yet, but it’s coming. Nizam is debating whether it should be handwritten on a piece of paper or something nicer.
“It’s got to be authentic,” he says. “It can’t be too fancy.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery