By Alex Clifford and Alex Nicholson
Nizam Ali is a busy man. In the hour-or-so he spent with us, Nizam dealt with friends coming in, friends leaving, lost keys, vacation requests, coordinating musical guests for the 50th Anniversary Gala and a surprise visit from Cake Man Raven and his crew, but still wasn’t able to hide his disappointment when we declined his offer of a half-smoke or two. As the son of Ben’s Chili Bowl founders Virginia and Ben Ali, Nizam (along with his brother Kamal) helped guide the business through the lean times of the late 80s and into the celebrity-endorsed, celebrated landmark of today.
More than a family business, the Bowl is a source of pride and identity to the Alis. This was strikingly evident when Nizam, while addressing spurious allegations that their chili is canned, led us back into the kitchen, guiding us past the five giant pots of that day’s chili to a paper sack filled with the secret spice mixture that he or his brother blend every night. The Ali’s “never change” vision for Ben’s is offset by his ambitions for Ben’s Next Door, which could include a gift shop and possible online offerings, a larger menu, draft beer and what could be DC’s longest bar. The menu isn’t set, but it’s safe to say that half-smokes will be available. While giving us a tour of the new location which is still under construction, it was clear that all Nizam sees are new opportunities his family, Ben’s and the changing face of U Street.
We wanted to share Nizam Ali’s words as he said them, so here in an exclusive BYT interview with the man himself:
Tell us how Ben’s Chili Bowl got started?
My dad was 31 when he opened Ben’s with my mom. He was born and raised in Trinidad, the eldest of 10 kids. He moved here and tried doing many things. At the time U Street was full of hot dog stands and sandwich shops and he worked at one where he learned the business. Mom and Dad came up with the chili recipe.
They rented this building and invested $5000 into it. It used to be a pool hall and before that a theater called The Minnehaha. This building was built in 1910, it’s almost 100 years old.
How has business changed?
We just put in our first POS system last week and I already want to pull the thing out. Everyone said, you need to get POS, you need to start taking credit cards. We’ve never had a real organized system but it works. We say we have rules, but then we break them all in the name of good service.
About five years ago I wanted to put a sign up in the window that said “Best Restaurant Not in Washingtonian,” then we ended up in Washingtonian for the first time a little while after that. We’ve always relied on word of mouth, and the media has been really good to us.
For our 40th anniversary we spent $53. Then someone who worked at CNN decided to do something on Ben’s. They got in touch with Bill Cosby and he talked about how when he comes to DC all the drivers ask him if he wants to go to ‘the usual place.” That was our first feature on CNN and we had a line out the door for weeks.
While the metro was being built, we had no business, but ever since then we’ve seen year-over-year growth. Five years ago for our 45th anniversary Mr. Cosby came back, we had Jesse Jackson here. Everyone covered it. And now we’re at our 50th.
What motivated you to start serving vegetarian chili?
About 10-12 years ago we introduced the vegetarian chili. It was around when we started serving turkey dogs and we wanted an option to put on top of those for people that don’t eat beef. My mother and Peaches developed the vegetarian recipe.
Are there any changes in store for the original location? Any upgrades? Anything you are thinking about doing differently?
Never. If I made any changes to the original Ben’s, I’d get run out of town.
Ben’s Next Door is the place where you may see some of the things we want to try.
When you think back over your Ben’s experience, growing up with that as the family business, you must have tons of stories. What’s one of your favorites?
That’s a good question, but I think my favorite thing is finding out stuff I never knew about this place. Like finding out that Martin Luther King ate here, or being told by someone that they ran into a celebrity here, like Donny Hathaway,
The stories that my parents tell me are important. You know during the riots I believe we were the only business to stay open after curfew. The restaurant got passes for the employees to come and go. But after it closed my dad would write ‘Soul Brother’ on the window and sit in the first booth with a gun protecting this place. My mother still remembers the smell of tear gas on U Street.
People love Ben’s, everyone has their own story. There are a million stories about Ben’s.
Because you are so central to DC nightlife, do you have any good stories about what happens once the bars let out?
Not that I can tell in print! We choose not to have bulletproof glass or security, but sometimes we’ll have a fight. You know how crowded it gets by the door and how drunk people get. Someone will get pushed or their shoe messed up or something and next thing you know there’s a fight. But the funny thing is, no one stops eating and no one gets out of their seat.
I think music is a really important part of coming to Ben’s, who picked the songs in the jukebox?
I do. All of it, every song. It very rarely changes and we think about it when it does. We try not to play anything that is currently on the radio, but we’ll put in some new stuff.
Your breakfast is amazing, are we ever going to be able to have it on Sundays?
Maybe, that may make sense at the new place next door.
U Street has changed so much in the last 5 years, much less 50. What do you see for the neighborhood in the future?
The property taxes are an issue and if they keep going up they are going to make people have to leave. Just because your property taxes go up 100% does not mean sales go up 100%. It’s hurting a lot of the independent business on this street.
So, what do you eat when you’re at the restaurant? And assuming you aren’t eating half-smokes at home, what is the Ali family eating for Sunday dinner?
Me and my wife have children so we try to eat healthy and simple. You know, chicken and pastas and stuff. Now my mom’s a mean cook. She’s from a farm in southern Virginia, about 20 miles from Tappahannock down a dirt road. She is all about southern cooking and southern hospitality.
We’re pretty excited about the block party on Friday. Can you give us the highlights?
We’re going to have Donnie Simpson and Russ Parr both broadcasting live. Who knows what they have planned.
You have some great acts set up for the show at the 9:30. Are there going to be any surprises?
(Note* Alex and Alex are sworn to secrecy, but it’ll be good.)
Everything you’re doing for the anniversary is free, what was the decision making process behind that?
We just thought it would be cool. A classy way of saying thank you.
So when is Ben’s Next Door opening?
We were hoping for the anniversary, but it’s looking like October.
What’s the food going to be like?
Apparently one of the great wrongs of the world is that you can’t get a half-smoke and a beer. We’re going to change that with the new place. People can go in there, get some of the menu items from the Bowl, get a beer or hard drink. Or they can order something we wouldn’t serve over here at Ben’s, like maybe a salad.
We’re still figuring it out and we’re open to ideas. It’s an opportunity for us to do something different. Something that will compliment what we’re already doing, not compete with it.
Are you going to have performers over there?
We’re flexible. We hope to be able to, but we’re not trying to be the new hot spot, just cool and comfortable, like the Bowl.
So what’s next for Ben’s?
We’re hoping to use Ben’s II to do something different. We don’t have a lot of space right now to sell any merchandise. Maybe we’ll set something up so people can get Ben’s shirts and things. We may try to sell our chili and half-smokes. We’re always getting requests from people all over the country to just want a taste of Ben’s, maybe we can do that now.
The Cos eating Ben’s Chili Bowl at Meet The Press