For the past 62 years, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a central hub in the D.C. community for their original half-smoke, secret chili recipe, and more. With frequent customers including former President Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Jimmy Fallon, this restaurant is known for its genuine belief in helping people through providing meals and community.
Common had the fortunate opportunity to work with Ben’s Chili Bowl and One Tent Health to donate meals to an HIV testing and voter registration event in an under-served area of the city. In the process, we became incredibly inspired by the story of the family behind this D.C. landmark. We spoke with Vida Ali, the founder’s daughter-in-law, Ben’s Chili Bowl’s business mastermind, and community activist to learn more about how they’ve been able to impact the community through the past 6 decades.
Hi Vida! Can you tell us more about how Ben’s Chili Bowl got started?
Ben’s Chili Bowl was opened on August 22, 1958, by my in-laws, Virginia and Ben Ali. Ben originally immigrated to America from Trinidad to become a dentist, but a serious accident from falling down an elevator shaft prevented him from pursuing that dream. With a love for spices and Trinidadian cuisine, he decided to work in the restaurant industry instead, but found the food a bit bland.
He started experimenting with adding the traditional spices he loved into familiar dishes and developed Ben’s secret chili sauce and signature half-smoke dish in the process! Their restaurant instantly became a hit and all walks of life started to come together to enjoy meals at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
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Why is it important to treat each customer like a part of the family?
Whether a celebrity or someone experiencing homelessness walks through our doors, we make it a point to treat everyone the same, like family. The truth is—Ben’s Chili Bowl truly belongs to a city and to a culture, not our family. The community of people who frequent our restaurant have become a family to us and one another.
One thing that makes Ben’s Chili Bowl unique is that it truly has serviced people from every area of the city and beyond. A few years ago, I was walking through our restaurant and saw Jimmy Fallon standing in line! He told me he appreciated having to wait in line without special treatment and that we treated everyone equally. In another instance, a gentleman heading to commit suicide came into our restaurant for his last meal. Although she wasn’t aware of that at the time, Virginia sat with him for a few hours talking and offered him a free meal. Later, he came back and told us in tears that our small act of kindness had saved his life. These are the moments that truly encourage us to keep our business going and continue to reach out to our neighbors.
How has Ben’s Chili been a haven for activists in the D.C. community?
Our restaurant has been a haven and gathering place for activists in the community from the beginning. Virginia always tells the story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would frequent the restaurant and that she spoke to him about his “I Have a Dream” speech before he gave it. The day he gave it, she was in the crowd watching and then immediately ran back to open up the restaurant!
In 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated, D.C. implemented a 3-day curfew but asked us to keep Ben’s Chili Bowl open as a comfort and resting place for the community. For the next 20 years, many of our customers moved away from the area but would go out of their way to still order food from us to support the business. Even President Obama chose Ben’s as his first stop after winning President-Elect! He also had one of his press interviews in our restaurant and we were extremely humbled and grateful for the national exposure.
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In what ways did your business adapt and pivot during the pandemic?
Our business fell 90% when the pandemic hit, but we vowed not to lay off any of our team members. We met with all of them individually and allowed our team members that were living with elderly or young family members to give them the option to not come to work and take care of their family. Every member of our team felt seen and cared for, which was our main goal.
We were incredibly humbled to see how the community stepped in when they heard about what we had done for our team. Each week, we would receive checks ranging from $10-$500 from around the country, and we were able to use that money to give free meals to our frontline workers, teachers, seniors, and the national guard protecting The Capitol. Despite the incredible loss and hardships, the pandemic has shown us the humanity of our city again and gave us resources to give back and help one another.
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Tell us more about Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation!
Our business was never about only making money but about serving the community. Mom and Pop always gave back, but the second generation formalized their generosity in 2009 by establishing The Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation to continue to give back to everyone in need.
What do you love most about the D.C. community?
Even with the pandemic and life’s ups and downs, D.C. understands that it takes all of us to continue the kindness, giving, and receiving needed to support a healthy community. This city is unique because it’s small in some ways, but it also represents America to the world. From the stunning architecture to the vibrant people, this city is gorgeous to me!