By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
For decades, Ben’s Chili Bowl owner Virginia Ali ate a beef hotdog daily that she slathered with mustard, onions and of course, the restaurant’s famous chili.
But nine years ago, when Ali turned 75 and the doctor told her she was at risk of having a stroke because her cholesterol had shot up to 240, Ali knew she had to change her diet.
She stopped eating the hotdogs and opted for oatmeal, salads, fish, fruits and veggies. Then she started walking a half hour every day for two months. When she returned to the doctor for her follow up visit, Ali was happy to see that her cholesterol had fallen to 186 — all without medication.
“It can be done,” Ali told the AFRO.
The story of Virginia Ali, 84, is also the story of Ben’s Chili Bowl, which she opened with her late husband, Mahaboob “Ben” Ali, 60 years ago this week.
The couple met in the 1950s — she worked as a teller at Industrial Bank, now one of the last surviving Black-owned banks in the country. Ben Ali, who originally hailed from Trinidad, was working his way through Howard University’s dentistry school at a local restaurant. He often conducted business at Industrial Bank and went to his future wife’s window.
Washington, D.C. was segregated then and Shaw was filled with Black doctors, lawyers, accountants, sanitation workers and even winos, Ali recalled. At the time, the bustling area, then known as “Black Broadway” served as the entertainment center for African Americans.
“We had a cross section of people,” she said. “We just had so many amazing businesses in the community that were owned by African Americans.”
On Aug. 22, 1958, the couple opened Ben’s Chili Bowl at 1213 U Street, the site of a former silent movie theater called the Minnehaha. The Ali’s simply wanted to own a business that would give them the means to raise their children and had no idea it would become such a huge success that has spawned locations all over the area.
When life took a turn for the worse in Shaw, Ben’s Chili Bowl weathered the storm right along with it.
In 1968, Ben’s Chili Bowl was one of a few businesses the city allowed to remain open during the three days of uprisings that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination- a period Ali called “a time of fear” and “a time of sadness.” Many African-American residents fled and Black-owned businesses closed up around them, never to return. Today, Industrial Bank, Lee’s Flower and Card Shop and Ben’s Chili Bowl are the only Black-owned businesses remaining on U Street from those days.
Ben’s Chili Bowl stayed open even after the heroin and crack epidemics gripped the neighborhood.
In the late 1980s when Metro started constructing the U Street Metro Station in front of the restaurant, Ben’s remained open — with only Virginia Ali and one other employee working. She had the contractor make “This Way to Ben’s” signs that directed people to enter through the back of the restaurant. Ali remembers most of her customers in those days were the construction workers and people who were looking for their “fix,” and that other businesses didn’t survive the construction.
Despite the difficulties Shaw faced over the last 60 years, Ali said she never considered moving Ben’s out of the neighborhood.
“I certainly felt like this is the national capital, at that time the capitol of the world,” Ali said. “It’s going to come back. I just had no idea it was going to take 20 years.”
Shaw is in the midst of a revitalization that has attracted high-end condo buildings and White residents to the gentrifying neighborhood. Ali continues to welcome locals, people who went there with parents and grandparents back in the day, former employees and tourists from all over the world. Even former president Barack Obama and Serena Williams have dropped in.
Ali credits the completion of the Metro station with ushering in the neighborhood’s rebirth, and while she misses the days when Shaw was a close-knit community in which everyone knew who you were, she has come to embrace its changes.
“People were afraid to come because of the drugs and the violence that was happening.” Ali said. “So now we’ve got a thriving community, economically strong, businesses of all kinds and in our city, we have people from every corner of the globe, we have restaurants from all over the world, we have a young generation of people moving … in here that are highly educated. I’m very positive about what the future’s going to be like — I think it’s going to be great.”
These days, Ali still works at Ben’s daily but her three sons Kamal, Nizam and Haidar as well as her two daughters-in-law run the business. Ben Ali, the restaurant’s namesake, died in 2009 at the age of 82.
The company has spawned a Ben’s Chili Bowl on H Street, at Nationals Park, at Ronald Reagan National Airport and in Arlington. In 2008, the sons opened Ben’s Next Door, a restaurant and bar adjacent to the original Ben’s. The original location attracts more than 250,000 customers a year, said Bernard Demczuk, the restaurant’s historian.
When it comes to preserving Black culture in the neighborhood, Ali said the older generation has to teach young people in the home about their history and remember the role Blacks played in the city’s development.
“We’re still here, the bank is still here, the flower shop is still here and we’re doing what best to hold onto what little culture we can,” Ali said.