To many, Virginia Ali is a national treasure. But for Ali, it seems like just yesterday that she traveled from Virginia to Washington, D.C., where she began to build a family and chase after her entrepreneurial dreams.
After moving to D.C. and falling in love with her late husband, Mama Ali—as Ali is affectionately called—decided to leave her job working at a family-owned Black bank located on D.C.’s Black Wall Street and start her own family business, Ben’s Chili Bowl, on the same U Street block.
Ali recalls that her late husband Ben Ali, who worked his way through school by working in restaurants, had an idea for a “fabulous chili recipe” (which was just voted best vegan chili in the country just this year by PETA). But Ben’s Chili Bowl didn’t just become known for serving great chili; the family restaurant would also go on to make an indelible impression on an entire community. Ben’s Chili Bowl has witnessed and played a role in everything from the Civil Rights movement to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, and has survived it all while serving out heaps of love to anyone who passes through their doors.
While Mama Ali will celebrate her 88th birthday this December, her role in the D.C. community is an ongoing celebration. Ali chats with Sweet July about what this means to her, and how she continues to champion her local community after more than 60 years in business.
Needless to say, Ben’s Chili Bowl is not your average restaurant. How would you describe what Ben’s Chili Bowl represents for its community?
Virginia Ali: The Chili Bowl has always been the gathering place. It’s a staple in the community that has been there day in and day out for 63 years. We close only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. People can depend on us. Whether it was raining or snowing or whatever was going on, we managed to get that Chili Bowl open. And the neighbors—those that maybe needed a little extra hand—they could come to us for help, and we were willing to do that at all times. The community knew we were there to support them, and in return, we were supported by the community. For me, having opened it in 1958 with my husband, it’s just my little Chili Bowl and I never think of it as being anything big and grand and all that. And it always takes me by surprise sometimes when I see what’s happening and how appreciated it is. You know, it’s been a real dream come true. We became the media place where if the media wanted an African-American perspective on the new football coach or the new person running for city council or whatever, it was the Chili Bowl.
Having lived through the Civil Rights Movement and being able to witness a piece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream come true with a Black male president and the first Black female vice president, what’s that feel like for you?
VA: That was an amazing experience for me because people my age didn’t think it could happen in our lifetime. When we saw [Obama] campaigning, we were like, ‘Oh my gosh. He’s so smart. He’s so good. He’s so everything. But he’s not going to make it. We don’t think he could possibly make it.’ And then as time passed and we saw the hope of the young people coming out and people really getting behind his campaign, we’re thinking, ‘Oh, if this could just happen for real, this would be amazing!’ For people in my age group, you know, it just didn’t seem feasible. So it was such a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, exhilarating feeling. We couldn’t sleep all night. We were up all night. There was dancing and partying in the street in front of the Chili Bowl that night of the election. And then, after the election and two weeks before his inauguration, after he’d moved to Washington, the very first place that he came to eat out was at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Well, that was just the topping on the cake. That was amazing!
Can you share some of your most prominent memories from the Civil Rights movement?
VA: My husband and I were there to hear [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] deliver that “I Have a Dream” speech, and we left there so excited and so inspired, and [believing] change was gonna come. And, of course, we did pass the civil rights bill the very next year, and the voting rights bill the following year. But he brought these 250,000 people to Washington without a single incident, nothing but inspiration and hope. We’re still fighting for some of the same things today, the voting rights and all of that today, but that’s what happened back then during that time. So imagine being there for that and then welcoming an African-American president and now to have a wonderful [Black female] vice president. I mean, I’ve lived through the best of times in this country! I really think so. We still have a lot to do.
What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?
VA: I think it’s very important. I think the violent death of Mr. [George] Floyd has shown the world all the injustices that we’ve suffered all these years. And I think Black Lives Matter puts a focus on that, and we need to keep it going. All lives matter, of course, but if you read the history on the slave era up to the present time, we do need Black Lives Matter. Yes. I think we still do.
What would you like the legacy of Ben’s Chili Bowl to be?
VA: I’ve said to people over and over again, I’ve had the privilege of serving people from all walks of life. We had the presidents, the judges, and you go all the way down to those persons that have been in prison, or on drugs, or the bums on the corner. We serve everybody. And I’d like to think that we served them all with the same kindness and respect and passion. Because we are all just people. So my happiness has been knowing that this is what we’ve tried to do all these 63 years that I’ve been in business—treat people the way we’d like them to treat us. And when they walk into the door at the Chili Bowl I want them to think they’re coming almost to my home, coming to a place where they will be respected. I think if we could find a way to treat people the way we would like to be treated, we wouldn’t have a problem in the world.
I remember when Morley Safer from 60 Minutes came in because we had a new mayor, Anthony Williams, [who] used to come frequently to the Chili Bowl. So he’s following Mayor Williams around, and we met and he said, ‘You know what this feels like?’ I said ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Grandma’s kitchen.’ So I thought, that’s warm enough for me. I like that.
Do you have any tips for aspiring Black entrepreneurs?
VA: It’s always good to find a need and fill the need. And on the other hand, you’ve got to find something that you enjoy doing. You know, you can’t go to work every day hating what you do. So if you find a need to fill and if you enjoy doing it, it’s just a good way to live. I have enjoyed this experience so much. I get tired. Of course, I do. But I like people. I love meeting people and, at almost 88, I still go every day so that I can meet and greet my guests, and I’m energized when I walk in that front door. I’m really energized by the people I meet every single day. And now those people come from all backgrounds all over the world. At one time, you know, it was a domestic kind of thing—the local people and the people in the country—but now they’re coming from all over the world. Somehow they’ve heard about Ben’s [laughter]. That’s pretty amazing.
How has family played a role in the success of Ben’s Chili Bowl?
VA: My husband and I had the good fortune of having three sons that we sent off to prominent schools. The youngest one is a lawyer. They all take care of Ben’s Chili Bowl. They all work for Ben’s Chili Bowl—it’s a full full-time thing with them. That’s their career. All three sons are married, and two of my daughters-in-law work with me full-time, and they’re wonderful. So I not only get to greet my guests every day and meet wonderful, interesting people, [but] I get to see my children almost every day. I think that Ben’s Chili Bowl has shown people that families can work together. The African-American family-owned bank [down the street] is now being operated 84 years later by the grandchildren. And the flower shop across the street from the bank, third and fourth generations of that family are operating that flower shop. So we’ve shown them that families can and should work together. If they can come together and support a business and make it a legacy and leave for the next generation, I think it’s a great thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.