October 19, 2009 • Bruce Weindruch
Before you read this post, take a quick look at the photo that accompanies my bio on this blog. That’s me at Ben’s Chili Bowl here in Washington, D.C. I had just finished running the roulette table at my daughter’s school casino night, and I had promised an extremely excited group of 13-year-old girls that we could swing by Ben’s for a late-night feast. Sure the girls wanted the chili dogs and cheese fries, but what they really craved was the electric atmosphere of Ben’s at 11:45 on a Friday night.
A couple weeks ago, the founder of Ben’s Chili Bowl, Ben Ali, died of congestive heart-failure at the age of 82. I know what you’re thinking: It must’ve been his food that got him. According to The Washington Post, Ali—a Muslim who observed Islam’s prohibition of eating pork—”. . . never tasted the hot dogs and half-smokes that made his restaurant famous.” Frankly (pun intended), that just left more “Ben’s Goodness” for the rest of us. But let’s skip the culinary stuff and cut right to the lessons-learned from Ben’s Chili Bowl’s 51-year business history.
You Probably Won’t Get It Right the First Time—Ben Ali reportedly attended six colleges or universities and one dental school, waited tables, ran an import business, drove a taxi, and worked as a realtor. Finally, on August 22, 1958, he founded the Chili Bowl.
Stick to What You Know—As a native of Trinidad, Ben Ali was no stranger to spicy foods. Anyone who’s ever tasted Ben’s chili immediately notices the peppery overtones that differentiate the product from its blander, more tomato-based kin. I’ve always preferred the unique flavor of Ben’s chili, and am fairly confident it is a major ingredient in his success.
Stay Focused—For more than 50 years, Ben’s has topped only three items with its chili: hot dogs, hamburgers, and half-smokes (smoked sausages). That’s all. (Although I may have seen some chili grace a fry or two.)
Communicate—In 1968, when the U Street Corridor where Ben’s is located was Ground Zero for rioting, Ben Ali wrote “Soul Brother” in soap in his front window, and his restaurant stood untouched. The restaurant is filled with folksy communications, like the faded, handmade sign that reads, “Who eats free at Ben’s: Bill Cosby. No one else.” Recently, an even cruder placard announced, “The Obamas eat here for free.” (At the time of the first Obama sighting at Ben’s, The Washington Post made a point of explaining that the then–President elect paid for his own meal.)
Remain Committed at All Costs—When post-riot urban blight sent his neighborhood into a severe downward spiral, Ben removed sweets from his menu because they appealed to the growing community of drug users. And when 1980s construction on Metro’s Green Line decimated U Street even more than the 1968 riots, Ben survived by reportedly downsizing his staff to two employees in addition to his own family members.
“Star Power” Is Good—Ben’s is a “must do” stop on the itineraries of musicians, movie stars, sports figures, politicians, and global dignitaries. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King, Jr., Serena Williams, Denzel Washington, Bono, and Hillary Clinton have all eaten at Ben’s . . . and there are photos to prove it.
Stay Current—Believe it or not, over the years Ben Ali added “healthy choices” to his menu. Ben’s offers veggie chili, a jumbo turkey hot dog, a turkey burger, and a veggie burger–although I can honestly say I have never seen a customer order any of these items.
On October 16, Washington, D.C., held a “Celebration of Life” for Ben Ali at the historic Lincoln Theatre, next door to Ben’s Chili Bowl. There was no more appropriate venue for today’s luminaries to gather in tribute to Ben, on a stage that had been graced by Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn.
It is often said that the business is the shadow of its founder. From a small storefront at the heart of Washington, D.C., Ben Ali was lighthouse.
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