Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. institution started by an Indo-Caribbean family, plans expansion beyond Beltway

Exterior view of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U street in Washington. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary)

Ben’s Chili Bowl, the 65-year-old Washington restaurant known for its chili-smothered half-smokes – and for its role in the civil rights movement – will soon be opening locations well beyond the Beltway.

The restaurant will begin offering an undetermined number of franchises that will open in 2024, first along the East Coast and then potentially moving west, said Vida Ali, the daughter-in-law of Virginia Ali, who opened Ben’s in 1958 with her late husband, Ben.

The expansion is part of a “pandemic pivot” the family began in 2020, when restaurants were closed, Vida said. First they turned to e-commerce, selling goods on their website, and later branching into retail, with half-smokes and cans of chili now being sold at Washington-area Costcos. In a deal announced last week, the products will also be sold at 164 Giant supermarkets in Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.

Virginia Ali, who will turn 90 in December, said she is confident that the operators of the new locations can maintain the same ethos of the original. “The Chili Bowl has always been about good food and serving the community,” she said, noting that she has served presidents and homeless people alike. “My three sons grew up at the Chili Bowl, and they will make sure that wherever these franchisees are, that they get those values right.”

Ali says she’ll make sure of it herself. “I plan to visit every one of them, as long as I can,” she said. “I’ll check up on them.”

In addition to its flagship restaurant on U Street NW, where its ketchup-and-mustard-hued signage is a local landmark, Ben’s has a location on H Street NE, which opened in 2015, and also operates facilities at FedEx Field, Nationals Park, Reagan National Airport and the convention center downtown. While the restaurants’ chili is still made daily in-house, to meet the demand for retail products, Ben’s now uses a production company in Alexandria.

Soon after its founding, Ben’s became a hub for civil rights activists: The 1963 March on Washington was planned there, and the restaurant fed protesters. Ben’s was permitted to remain open during the 1968 riots – serving police and firefighters as well as activists – while neighboring businesses along the U Street corridor burned. Over the years, it became a magnet for celebrities, such as Washington native Dave Chappelle, former president Barack Obama and a slew of passing-through-town musicians. The walls are lined with photos of famous faces, and the jukebox is stocked with Motown and go-go.

It’s not hard to imagine copycat locations mimicking Ben’s classic diner-style interior and distinctive signs. Vida Ali said the franchise locations would look “identical” to the original and serve the same menu, which features chili-topped dogs, burgers and fries – and, in recent years, has expanded with vegetarian versions. The jukebox, too, will be a must for any new location, she said.

Over the years, Vida Ali said, many people have approached their family wanting to open Ben’s locations around the United States and even abroad. But she said they took their time in creating a franchise plan. “We wanted to make sure we did it right,” she said. “Whatever operator opens a Ben’s, their first priority will be serving the community.”



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