Known for D.C.’s signature dish—the half smoke—Ben’s Chili Bowl has withstood its fair share of turmoil. The restaurant proudly kept its doors open through the 1968 uprising, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and 9/11. For the first time in its 61 years of business, Ben’s Chili Bowl is uncertain of its future.
“What we’re dealing with today is something I can’t comprehend at all,” says founder Virginia Ali, who has been working at the original location on U Street NW since she opened it in 1958 with her husband, Ben Ali. “We were there through the battle of civil rights. It was a very, very difficult time. The community was literally destroyed. [COVID-19] is not just affecting our community, but the city, the world.”
Since Ben’s passing in 2009, Virginia has managed the restaurant and its six other locations with the help of her daughter-in-law, Vida Ali, and other family members. As COVID-19 continues to decimate the restaurant industry, the Ali family finds it hard to imagine a world where they can’t be there to help feed their neighbors.
When COVID-19 first reached the U.S., Vida prepared for curbside pickup. The moment shutdowns were announced, they pivoted to exclusively selling food to-go. Ben’s Chili Bowl is also available for delivery via their own website as well as GrubHub, DoorDash, and UberEats.
“None of it is profitable,” Vida reports. “We’re losing money to stay open but we still want to be there for the community.”
Last week, Virginia’s children convinced her to stop going into the restaurant. At the age of 86, Virginia is at high risk of contracting and not recovering from COVID-19. This sudden shift from her lifelong routine leaves Virginia feeling withdrawn from her staff and loyal customers.
Customers share the sentiment. “People have been calling and even coming by, requesting to sit at every other booth,” Vida laughs. “But we follow the guidelines and want to make sure everyone stays safe.”
Like many other restaurants, their approach is to take things one day at a time. The Ali family describes the shutdown’s effects on small, black-owned businesses as devastating. “I don’t know how many of us will survive,” Virginia says.
Many black-owned restaurants in the DMV already closed their doors last week, with little communication to the public about whether the closures are temporary or permanent. Furard Tate, one of the co-founders of DMV Black Restaurant Week, echoes Virginia’s concerns.
“This is something that has never happened to businesses, period,” he states. “Our city has done amazing work in getting the information out there, but fear has stopped a lot of people from thinking about what the best practices are for this situation.”
It is not unusual for small black and brown restaurants to feel the harshest effects whenever the economy or society suffers, according to Tate. He blames lack of the access to information and opportunities afforded to other businesses. They also don’t always have the support of expensive public relations agencies to push their take-out specials and other offerings out to the press and public.
Tate has been advocating for the black-owned restaurant community to actively seek advice from experts and other restaurant owners on how to position themselves for a potential return. He hopes that those in the community who work in or otherwise support these businesses will rally together to find ways to offer encouragement or financial help.
“Call the owners,” he pleads. “Let them know you will be back. See if you can support them online or with cash apps. These are ways the community can sustain these cultural ambassadors.”
Black-owned restaurants make up a small percentage of the independently owned restaurants in the District, though one of DMV Black Restaurant Week’s chief goals is to increase pipelines to ownership through educational programming. While the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Restaurant week boasts hundreds of restaurant participants in the D.C. area alone, the DMV Black Restaurant Week held in Nov. 2019 only had 19 participating restaurants in D.C. and 30 within the entire DMV.
“Imagine if these few restaurants that do exist disappear because they couldn’t sustain themselves,” Tate concludes. Some, including five restaurants on H Street NE and Swahili Village downtown, were just finding their footing before COVID-19 locked down the District.
Dine Diaspora, an organization that connects audiences and brands to African food culture, has been uplifting African chefs as cultural ambassadors since 2013. The organization takes pride in equally showcasing chefs who serve traditional food as well as chefs who put their own spin on their cuisines, thereby reinventing and showcasing African ingredients in a new way.
Like Tate, Dine Diaspora’s co-founder Nina Oduro and her partners are focusing on the best way to get relevant information and support to black people in the restaurant industry. “Instead of thinking of our events as celebrating or connecting brands to African food and culture, we’re positioning ourselves in a way where we can be conduits through which information can be disseminated,” Oduro says.
On March 31, Dine Diaspora hosted a publicized Twitter chat titled, “Black Women in Food in a Time of Uncertainty.” Participants included D.C.’s own Executive Pastry Chef Paola Velez of Kith/Kin, food writer Korsha Wilson, chef and writer Thérèse Nelson, and Top Chef alum Tanya Holland. They discussed the emotional toll stemming from the disruption of routines, the uncertainty of their industry, and their ongoing efforts to tell stories about heritage through food.
Velez says the timing of the crisis coincides with the rise of Afro-Caribbean food, thanks in part to her Kith/Kin colleague—Executive Chef Kwame Onwuachi. “The train was moving at breakneck speed,” Velez says. “Folks were being prompted to get on or get left behind.”
She is hopeful that COVID-19 won’t disrupt the momentum.
A semi-finalist for a James Beard Award, Velez uses her skills in the kitchen as a way to honor those who came before her. “The whole point of us taking control of the narrative wasn’t to be famous or to get rich quick,” she tweets. “But to share the tribulations our ancestors had to face and rebranding what was deemed ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ into something that has always been good.”
While many chefs can no longer carry out that dialogue from within their restaurants, the task of pushing the conversation forward continues through virtual means like Instagram live, Twitter chats, and video-conference cooking classes. As Wilson puts it, now is the time to “amplify people’s projects.” There’s a tremendous sense of resilience that comes from uniting on various platforms.
In a powerful contribution to the Dine Diaspora Twitter chat, Nelson reminds those following along that “black women have been creating equitable and sustainable businesses since the birth of the nation.” Despite this, she feels, “somewhere along the way we have dimmed our collective power to be seen in spaces that don’t matter.”
Once COVID-19 runs its course, Nelson hopes black women in food will harness the power of their own voices and capabilities, though that will be difficult if the restaurant industry rebounds to the status quo.
“I think rebuilding and getting back to normal will trump rebuilding equitably,” Nelson tweets. “The public wants their normal not really understanding that their embarrassment of riches with reference to choice and price was always at the expense of parity and equity.”