Co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl talks business, its role in the arts community
BY BRANDY SPEARS — Nizam Ben Ali received warm and welcoming applause as he greeted the attendees of the Arts & Business Breakfast held at Joe’s Movement Emporium on Feb. 7. Brooke Kidd, executive director and founder of World Arts Focus, hosted the event and introduced Ali, co-owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, as an “extraordinary regional business owner.”
Ali began the discussion by describing what it was like to grow up in a family business and how entrenched he was in it. He said that when he was tall enough to reach the tables, he began working for the restaurant after school and on weekends. “When you got to the fries, you were really big-time,” said Ali of his gradual transition up the ranks in his father’s restaurant. “You just steadily go up the ladder, and learn more about the business.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl opened on U Street in 1958 in a segregated Washington, when U Street was known as “Black Broadway.” Ali described the neighborhood — then and now — as having a “strong sense of pride and community.” Although Ben’s Chili Bowl has become a historic symbol, Ali described some challenges the business faced over their 60 years of operation, and how the community’s support and continued patronage helped sustain the restaurant during their most difficult times.
Ali noted how, for more than a year in the ‘80s, Metrorail construction along U Street completely obstructed their storefront, which made the restaurant appear closed and drove down sales. Ali then described how word-of-mouth from their customers, along with their continued patronage, kept enough business flowing their way.
During the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many businesses along the U Street corridor were burned to the ground. Ali says it was their strong ties to, and support of, the community that left their property unscathed. Ali said that Stokely Carmichael, a prominent figure of the civil rights movement and a native Trinidadian,put the word out to the community to protect their business, saying, “Don’t touch Ben’s.”
“If we were not entrenched in the community, we would not be here today,” said Ali. “A sense of community drives ingredients of successful business.”
Regarding support of the arts, Ali said that the restaurant’s murals are their most famous connection to artists and the community. He said that he believes art should be used to honor the living, and described how Ben’s Chili Bowl underscores this belief by commissioning murals featuring famous faces. At Ben’s, you can chow down on your chili in the rendered company of Muhammad Ali, Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince, Wale, Taraji P. Henson, Dick Gregory, Russ Parr and Roberta Flack.
And when it comes to the arts, Ben’s doesn’t have only terrific murals. Ben’s Next Door, the Chili Bowl’s companion venue, hosts live music with a focus on local, independent talent. And students from Howard University, along with other filmmakers, can use Ben’s as a set after closing hours. When it comes to partnering with the community and the arts, Ali said the key to any business’s success is, “Always say ‘Yes.’ Be open. You never know where it’s going to go.”
Ali’s family brand has expanded across the region and now employs more than 200 workers. Ben’s Chili Bowl locations include U Street, H Street, Arlington, Va., Nationals Park and FedEx Field.