Virginia Ali, cofounder and owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, says the iconic 60-year-old business would have folded a long time ago if she and her late husband, Ben Ali, didn’t have the foresight to buy the building on U Street NW.
Today in Washington, Ben’s stands out as a shining example of a black-owned business that’s stood the test of time. Last month, a group of entrepreneurs organized DMV Black Restaurant Week to bring together young restaurant and bar owners looking to follow the Alis’ example. DMV Black Restaurant Week guided attendees to more than 30 participating black-owned restaurants, including Ben’s Chili Bowl, Ben’s Next Door, and Ben’s Upstairs.
Virginia Ali says that the original Ben’s, the landmark home of D.C.’s signature chili-slathered half-smoke sausages, only survived because the she and her husband had invested in themselves instead of renting from someone else. At workshops and events throughout DMV Black Restaurant Week, her message resounded among a new generation of young business owners.
“I’m absolutely, positively sure it made the difference as to whether we could stay or not stay,” says Ali, who turns 85 next week.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the crack cocaine epidemic had decimated Washington, and Ali said business was practically nonexistent. According to an article in the Washingtonian this year, things had gotten so bad around Ben’s that the matriarch invited police to raid her shop when drug dealers were making sales from inside the restaurant’s booths.
Owning the building outright meant that even though generating revenue was a struggle, the Alis didn’t have to worry about paying a mortgage. Once the Metro station was built nearby, higher rents pushed out many longtime residents and businesses, but Ben’s was able to increase its value. Now the building is a major asset that’s been passed down within the family. Ben’s Chili Bowl opened in 1958 in a building bought for around $65,000. According to D.C. public records, it’s worth more than $2 million today.
In that way, the Alis have established intergenerational wealth. Teaching others to do the same was one of the major topics of discussion during DMV Black Restaurant Week.
Andra “A.J.” Johnson, a property investor and restaurant consultant who helped organize DMVBRW, says acquiring intergenerational wealth is particularly tough in the black community. According to a 2016 study by the Urban Institute, white households in D.C. had an average net worth 81 times greater than black households, and black-owned properties were valued significantly lower than white-owned ones.
“How many people of color can walk up to their family and say, ‘This is what I need?” Johnson said. “It’s a problem. But it shouldn’t affect how much our growth is.”
For Johnson, building intergenerational wealth in the restaurant industry starts with a change in mindset — instead of grinding to make someone else’s dreams come true, members of the black community should save and invest in themselves early like the Alis did. “We need to get off somebody else’s race,” Johnson says. “We need to be on our own racetrack.”
Johnson brought up hosting a panel on the topic of intergenerational wealth with fellow DMVBRW founders Furard Tate and Erinn Tucker while they planned the weeklong celebration. A conference featuring that panel was a resource for people who want to someday own restaurants. The founders of DMV Black Restaurant Week consider it to be a success. They’re now working on planning quarterly events, including panels and an awards ceremony honoring black hospitality leaders.
“This is a continuing conversation,” Tate said.
Attendees in November learned it’s not enough to solely focus on getting capital to start a business. It’s also critical to secure proper permits and licenses, create a business plan and structure, decide who will inherit the business, and find available city resources and loans.
“If you don’t know about it ... you don’t have the opportunity compared to other places that have it,” Tucker said.
Tate, a chef and entrepreneur, knows firsthand that property ownership is crucial to achieving intergenerational wealth. In 2014, he was forced to close his 18-year-old restaurant, Inspire BBQ, after his landlord sold the property on H Street NE to a developer. Tate wishes he’d followed the Alis’ example.
“They were their own landlord, so when times got hard, they were able to weather the storm,” Tate said.
The Alis opened Ben’s Chili Bowl when D.C. was still segregated. They envisioned it as a business to not only serve the community on U Street, then known as Black Broadway, but as an asset for their unborn children. Ben Ali gave their three sons Ben as a middle name in case they went into the family business.
The couple’s sons, Nizam, Kamal, and Haidar, also known as Sage, now run Ben’s Chili Bowl. They’ve opened more locations at Nationals Park, FedEx Field, Reagan National Airport, and on H Street NE. They also opened full-service restaurants, Ben’s Next Door and Ben’s Upstairs, that serve avocado toast, steak frites, and crab cakes.
Tony Simpson, who appeared on the DMV Black Restaurant Week panel on intergenerational wealth, has found success running two businesses in predominantly black Prince George’s County. He and his wife, Josette, own SoBe Restaurant & Lounge, a Lanham, Maryland, restaurant slinging American fusion cuisine with a swanky South Beach vibe.
Before opening SoBe, Simpson didn’t know much about restaurants. But he knew plenty about scrimping and saving. He recalls eating tuna fish sandwiches and driving a beat-up car before he got his IT Services company, CHRONOS Systems, off the ground in Suitland, Maryland.
With money from that venture, Simpson financed SoBe himself. Not everyone has that luxury, but with planning and sacrifice, Simpson set the course for the next generation — his 30-year-old son Brandon now manages SoBe and owns a clothing company.
“If you plan to have that for your family going forward, you must start planning for those grandkids and those people that you want to pass it onto in the beginning of your career,” Tony Simpson says.
Virginia Ali hopes her three grandchildren eventually take over the growing Ben’s franchise, already inviting them in to get a taste of the business at the U Street landmark that advertises Chili Smokes and Chili Burgers on its facade.
“It’s a great way to meet people and to learn how to deal with folks from all walks of life and all cultures,” she said. “I find it fun, and I think they do too.”