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National Restaurant Association - Serving chili, spicy sausages and success

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Serving chili, spicy sausages and success

Nizam Ali wasn’t born in 1968 when civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael helped his parents, Ben and Virginia Ali, protect the family restaurant from riots that devastated many small businesses. But Nizam remembers the hard years that followed, when Ben’s Chili Bowl sometimes took in just $100 to $200 a day.

American Dream: Ben’s is the story of family, struggle, perseverance, and history. It’s the dream of an immigrant from Trinidad, going to university, trying to sink or swim, and a country girl from Virginia, who worked two blocks away at the bank, where they met. My two older brothers and I started working here when we were old enough to reach the tabletops to wipe them down.

Family heirloom: It took a while for me to realize the importance of this place. When the restaurant turned 40, CNN aired an interview  with Bill Cosby about how much he loved Ben’s, and you couldn’t get in the door for three weeks. So many businesses brought us gifts and flowers, and I realized this was a special place. So I stopped practicing law and joined my brother Kamal, who had been running the place by himself for 10 years. I wanted to help make sure this place continues.

Staff dedication: We have 20 to 30 employees, and many have been here for more than 10 years. Tony Adigwe has been here 21 years, and Bernadette “Peaches” Halton has been here for 31 years – since she was 17. Our 50th anniversary celebration was a big love fest. Everyone pulled together to work as a team.

Survival instinct: Our business has survived a lot of challenges. When the U Street subway station was being built, we had no road for three and a half years. Developers bought and boarded up a lot of vacant property, which didn’t help the neighborhood. But we kept this place clean, worked with the police and pulled sweets from the menu to discourage junkies from hanging around. When you’re a good neighbor, your neighbors look out for you.

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