Ben’s Chili Bowl has embarked on an effort to expand its brand by actively offering franchise opportunities to anyone who has an interest and can work to maintain the reputation of the company as a family-friendly, community-oriented business.
While Ben’s operates franchises at Reagan National Airport, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore and the newest setup at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District’s downtown area, Sage Ali said his family’s company wants its brand to reach more people and to offer business opportunities to non-family members through an increased franchising effort.
“We have wanted to get into the franchising for a long time but we wanted to do it the right way and at the right time,” Ali said. “When Obama came to visit us in 2009, we got calls from all over the country and throughout the world from people interested in our business. This is the next step in the evolution of Ben’s Chili Bowl.”
Ben’s as a franchiser doesn’t have a lot of company as a Black business in the franchise industry. While there are many Black businesses that operate as franchises for corporations such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Starbucks, there are no hard statistics to verify Black-owned franchisors. Ali said he knew of perhaps two Black franchisers.
When asked what will be required of someone interested in owning a Ben’s franchise, Ali said his company will look at certain factors.
“This is a great business opportunity for anyone,” he said. “We are a Black-owned and woman-owned business because my mother, Virginia Ali, owns Ben’s. We are proud to be a family business. We are also proud to be a part of the community. When we look at potential franchisees, we encourage people of color to look at us as well as females. Family will be a focus because operating a business many times is a family affair.”
Ali said particulars such as the franchising fee, getting financed and obtaining operating space will be discussed with franchisees but he stressed the importance of the protection of the Ben’s brand and its culture.
“To operate a Ben’s franchise, it has to be a labor of love,” he said. “My mom is 87 years old. She still works at our U Street store. She is dedicated and anyone who wants to franchise with us has to have that dedication.”
Ali said when his mother and father, Ben Ali, started their business on U Street in 1958, McDonald’s started its journey into franchising roughly at the same time.
“My father would often talk about how Ben’s could have been another McDonald’s,” he said. “My father said the big difference between what he was doing and McDonald’s ended up doing was that McDonald’s had the money and we did not.”
Ali said Ben’s path as an established business includes enduring the 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and the economically ailing U Street corridor of the 1970s and 1980s, the building of the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro Station in the mid-1980s to 1991 and being a part of the revitalization of the neighborhood since the 2000s.
He said with that history and its expansion to Ben’s Next Door bar and restaurant, a non-franchise Arlington, Va. location, a small operation at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., that has been shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic and stands at Nationals Stadium proves his company brand has staying power. In recent weeks, Ali has traveled to the Atlanta metropolitan area to discuss franchise opportunities with interested parties. He said setting up a franchise east of the Anacostia River could happen.
“Some people say we are not interested in coming to Southeast, in Ward 8, but that’s not true,” he said. “The question is not if but when will we? Setting up a new location will require new employees and new management, but I could see that possibly happening.”

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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