On the stage at the 65th anniversary of the founding of Ben’s Chili Bowl on Aug. 22, Virginia Ali, the co-founder of the restaurant chain and brand, sat between Black women entrepreneurial icons Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and the first Black American woman billionaire; and Cathy Hughes, the founder of media company Radio One and became the first Black woman to lead a publicly-lead company.
Ali, 89, in the company of business standouts, didn’t go unnoticed at the celebration that took place in front of the restaurant chain’s storied U Street NW location in front of dozens of people.
“We three women started out with a mate in these businesses and either by divorce or death, we were able to carry on,” Hughes, 76, said. “Each and every one of us had our trials but it was you, D.C., that stood by us. D.C. is the reason three Black women succeeded in business.”
Ali co-founded Ben’s Chili Bowl with her husband, Ben, in 1958.
Throughout the decades, the company has served noted figures such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Barack Obama, many members of the Congressional Black Caucus including each District delegate to the U.S. Congress, every District mayor and many Council members as well as everyday people.
The U Street location has seen the 1968 uprising after the assassination of King, economic downturns, the construction of the Green Line in the 1980s, gentrification and the coronavirus pandemic. Ben Ali died in 2009, but his wife has continued to work for the company by coming to the U Street store primarily serving and chatting with customers. Ali has been credited as the force for keeping Ben’s in operation.
Praise for Icon Ali
Johnson, 74, waited for the ceremony to begin in the back dining room with Hughes and other notables. When asked about Ali, she smiled broadly.
“You look at her right now,” said Johnson. “What is she doing? She is walking around the room, talking with her customers. That tells me a lot about her commitment and her value system.”
Shawn Townsend serves as the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), an interest organization on behalf of Washington, D.C. area eateries. Townsend, 39, said Ben’s Chili Bowl “is iconic.”
“This place is a civil rights history and Black history landmark,” he said. “The Ali family values community engagement, family presence. Mr. Ali must be looking down on us for keeping something going that he and his wife Virginia started. The family has carried on the legacy.”
Townsend also said Ben’s Chili Bowl had another asset.
“The food is good,” he said with a chuckle.
Etan Thomas came to the ceremony representing the organization that presently manages his former NBA team the Washington Wizards, Monumental Sports & Entertainment. During the ceremony, Thomas presented Ali with a jersey from the Washington Capitals, also owned by Monumental Sports & Entertainment. Former Washington Wizards Michael Adams and Harvey Grant presented Ali with jerseys from the Washington Mystics and the Wizards, respectively.
Doug Williams, an executive with the Washington Commanders, sat on the dais with his team president Jason Wright. Williams achieved fame when he led the then-Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory in 1988 as the first Black quarterback to start and win the league championship. Williams presented Ali with an autographed jersey. Wright noted the presence of the three Black women entrepreneurs on the stage and said they represented R.A.C.E., Resilience, Authenticity, Commitment and Excellence.
Danita Johnson, president of business operations for DC United, also presented Ali with a jersey and said, “without you, I would not be here.”
D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) spoke at the ceremony on the importance of Ben’s Chili Bowl to U Street and noted the presence of her colleagues, Matt Frumin (D-Ward 3) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). D.C. Former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry sat on the dais with Ali and spoke, and acting D.C. Police Chief Pamela A. Smith delivered remarks.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) came to the ceremony towards the end and said Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ali “are true D.C. institutions.”
Ali spoke briefly at the end of the ceremony, thanking everyone for coming to the 65th celebration and urging people to get in line to get their free meal consisting of a half smoke or hotdog with chips and soda.
Jacqui Lucas, a resident of Alexandria, Virgina, waited to get into Ben’s Chili Bowl for her free meal since 9 a.m. The serving of food didn’t start until 1:30 p.m.
“I will love the free food,” Lucas, 69, said. “I have come to Ben’s many; many times and I love coming here because of the food and the atmosphere.”