The Black Family Business – Ben\’s Turns 60

Originally Published February 2, 2016 as \”The Black Family Business\”

   Back in 1958, August 22nd to be exact, the sweet melody and sound on the Saturn II jukebox could well have been \”I want to stop, and thank you, baby,\” as Ben and Virginia Ali opened the nation\’s now famous Ben\’s Chili Bowl.

   More than just chili and cheese, Ben\’s Chili Bowl served a very prominent and classy close-knit community.  Located in Washington, D.C., on U street in the Northwest quadrant of the city Ben\’s Chili bowl is surrounded by some of the most iconic theaters such as the Lincoln Theater and Howard Theater not to forget The Republic and Booker T.  During the late 1920s U Street was known as the \”Black Broadway\” because of the very progressive entertainment and dining at restaurants with white tablecloths.

   Blacks in business during the 1950s were faced with challenges due to the racial inequality and lack of cultural understanding.  Along with overhead costs operating a business comes with investing not only money, but time, sacrifice, and dedication.  For the first twenty years through all the social and economic changes happening, Mrs. Ali was working longer hours since she only had one other employee at the time.  Mrs. Virginia says \”it was very hard on me because there were no streets, no subways, and the property tax had increased.\”

   Although some businesses didn\’t welcome people of color other than to make a purchase, Ben\’s Chili Bowl welcomed everyone from its opening day in 1958 until today. It is the most racially, culturally, and economically diverse thriving business in the city. In the 1960s some areas in the district were ravished by riots and engulfed in flames following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Many businesses had a curfew. However, Ben\’s Chili Bowl remained open, and it was the actual meeting place for the city police and other officials to come together to figure out a plan to end the riots and violence occurring in the District.

   Because of its location and one-of-a-kind chili half smoke you would often find influential African Americans such as Bill Cosby frequent Ben\’s Chili Bowl.  Mr. Cosby dined at Ben\’s Chili Bowl where he ultimately meets his love, Camille.  Bill Cosby would turn down press conferences at the Press Building and conduct press conferences at Ben\’s Chili Bowl instead.

   Family has always been at the forefront of Ben\’s business plan which contributes to its thriving business, and almost fifty-seven years later Ben\’s business hasn\’t slowed down and Mrs. Virginia Ali says \”having two of my three daughters-in-law running the business with me makes it very special.\”

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