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Anthony Ulysses Holmon doesn’t work at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Not anymore, anyway. But he still wears the jacket. The shiny maroon hoodie emblazoned with the Ben’s logo set him back $50 when he served as the night manager at D.C.’s most famous hot dog joint, Holmon says. And he’s determined to get his money’s worth.
“Now I use my jacket and my Ben’s hat as an advertisement,” says Holmon. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you work at Ben’s?’ Not no more. I’m getting ready to open my own chili bowl.”
For weeks, Holmon, 39, has been promoting his own restaurant concept—an idea based almost entirely on one-upping Washington’s legendary half-smoke landmark—largely via Twitter and in interviews with WTOP. He’s calling the concept “D.C. Chili Bowl.”
While he’s talked publicly about several possible locations—including setting up shop inside the now-shuttered Capital City Diner on Bladensburg Road NE—Holmon does not have a lease. At least not yet.
But he has gotten a reaction. A lawyer representing the Ali family, which has operated Ben’s since its late founder Ben Ali first opened the joint on U Street NW back in 1958, sent him a cease and desist letter, dated Feb. 15, which alleged that his use of the words “Chili Bowl” constitute federal trademark infringement and threatened to sue if Holmon moves forward.
Holmon, however, is undaunted. “I think it was a scare tactic,” he says, vowing not to back down. “Wendy’s didn’t call McDonald’s and ask if they could open another burger joint. Chef Spike [Mendelsohn] didn’t call Burger King and ask if he could open Good Stuff Eatery. Martin Luther King said if a man can build a better mousetrap then the world will beat a path to his door if he made his house in the woods. That’s the way I feel….I can do some things in the kitchen that the whole [Ali] family put together couldn’t do.”
Openly challenging one of the city’s most beloved institutions is a bold position to take. A longstanding symbol of African-American entrepreneurship, Ben’s Chili Bowl remains a popular destination for tourists and an almost obligatory campaign stop for any politician seeking citywide office. Culturally, the place holds a permanent place in the District’s collective consciousness—even if, digestively, the signature spicy sauce offers many of us only heartburn.
While it might sound like culinary treason, Holmon brazenly suggests he’s merely riding the same coattails as the descendants of Ben Ali themselves. “They get something that came their way, latch onto it and promote it,” he says.
We’re sitting at DC-3, the modish hot dog shop run by the Matchbox group on Capitol Hill, which appropriately offers its own approximation of Ben’s signature sausage: the “DC hot half-smoke,” laced with mustard, onions and relish. Unlike the Ben’s standard-bearer, it doesn’t come with chili. It also costs a little less: $4.49 compared to $5.70.
Holmon seems underwhelmed by DC-3’s version. He’s not too keen on the onion topping, either. “Onions make a difference when they’re cut fresh,” he says. “A day-old onion or two day-old onion takes away from the taste.” To Holmon, DC-3’s topping smacks of old age. “They weren’t cut today,” he says. (DC-3 declined to comment.)
Discussing the DC-3 dog’s apparent shortcomings naturally leads Holmon into dishing about his beef with Ben’s. The onions are just a starting point. At Ben’s, “they chop their onions in the buffalo chopper,” he says, referring to a kind of industrial-sized food processor that the restaurant says it sometimes uses. “Never do that,” Holmon says. “For one, it pulls all the water out of the onions, so you’ve got a bunch of soggy onions.”
Over the course of our hour-long lunch, Holmon doesn’t stop riffing on how Ben’s could improve its food and service—a list of things he pledges to do differently at his own place.
For instance, Holmon doesn’t approve of the way Ben’s staffers don’t wear gloves when handling the food. He also takes issue with the restaurant’s use of canned cheese sauce. “I would fine-tune it,” he says. “Drop a bag of shredded cheddar in it or something. Not just open a can and heat it up.” He further points to the family’s refusal to offer fried onions or cornbread as an accompaniment for the chili.
Holmon says he had hoped to work with the Alis to help modernize their longstanding business. He claims the chili bowl clan simply wouldn’t listen. To hear him tell it, the Ali family is a decadent bunch that is resting on their laurels and resistant to change—to their own detriment.
“Quality on a scale of one to ten at Ben’s Chili Bowl is a three,” Holmon says. “I believe in giving the customer what they want. If you’re going to charge me six dollars for a half-smoke, don’t tell me what I can’t have on it. If I tell you to split two and put it in the bun you should still give it to me.”
Naturally, Ben’s brass disputes a lot of what Holmon says, ranging from the cornbread—which, according to the family, is actually an option with large chili orders—to his characterization of them as content to sacrifice better business practices for the sake of tradition. “The only thing that hasn’t changed at Ben’s is the chili recipe,” says daughter-in-law Vida Ali.
If Holmon, a self-described 20-year food industry veteran, with prior stints at Starbucks, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and even the CIA cafeteria, comes off like a disgruntled former employee, that’s because he is.
Holmon contends the Ali family unfairly accused him of stealing from the register and fired him. Ben’s co-owner Kamal Ali describes Holmon’s termination in less stark terms. “The register was showing some shortages, and he was the manager, and he was the responsible party for the shift and the shortages,” Ali says. “We did not accuse him of stealing…We did say, ‘You are the one responsible.’”
Holmon says he was not the only one with access to the register that night and is consulting lawyers about potentially suing Ben’s for wrongful termination. (According to D.C. Superior Court records, Holmon has a track record of suing former employers, including a pair of 2008 suits against Starbucks and a 2007 case against Lucky Strike.)
Ali confirms that Holmon worked at Ben’s as night manager for several months before he was let go in January. But according to both parties, their relationship goes back farther. Ali first met Holmon while he was working for Centerplate, the former food service operator at Nationals Park, which managed the Ben’s Chili Bowl stands there back in 2008.
Holmon was fired from that job amid what he describes as personality clashes with management.
Regardless, Holmon’s relationship with the Ben’s brand continued. Holmon approached Ali with a pitch for another Ben’s Chili Bowl concession at a minor league ballpark in Woodbridge. Ali agreed. “It was a very small-scale affair,” says Ali, who adds that the 2010 venture ended up losing money.
For a short time after that, Holmon operated his own soul-food restaurant in Clinton, Md. By all accounts, the place didn’t last long; Holmon says the location was low on foot traffic.
Ali says he felt sorry for Holmon’s failed restaurant venture, so the family gave him a job at the original Ben’s about six months ago. The chili bowl scion adds that he even helped Holmon find an apartment—a place that Ali says he was paying for. Holmon confirms that Ali paid the first month’s rent and security deposit but says that subsequent months were being deducted from his paycheck.
“He’s still in the apartment as far as I’m aware,” says Ali, who describes Holmon’s negative comments about Ben’s as “a stab in the back” after all he’s done for the guy. Holmon says he’s currently looking for cheaper digs in Southeast D.C. “Legally, I’ve got to get him out of there,” adds Ali. “And, legally, I’ve got to get him to stop using the name.”
Ali says Holmon “poses no significant threat” to Ben’s. “He has dreams without means right now,” Ali says. “He doesn’t have a facility. He doesn’t have the rights to use that name. I don’t think he has a real company set up or anything of that nature. He’s just trying to create something out of nothing. He wants to profit off our family’s good name and reputation in the city.”
Ali says Holmon left him no choice but to unleash the lawyers. “You’re causing confusion to the public,” Ali says. “The public is confused and thinks you have an association with the same place or the same product….For him to take it on, well, he’s obviously trying to make a quick benefit.”
Ali says he holds no ill will toward the former employee. “I just wish he would use his own creativity and his own experience in food service to come up with his own ideas and concepts,” Ali says. “He claims he’s been in food service for 20 years. He’s got all these ideas, but they all seem to center around my business and my product and my name.”
Holmon disputes the Ali family’s legal claim, suggesting the registered trademark for “Ben’s Chili Bowl” doesn’t restrict every generic “chili bowl” in town. He points to a defunct Coney Island Chili Bowl on Benning Road NE, which presently seems to exist only in a few Internet references, as an example of a similar titled enterprise the Ali family never sued.
Ali says he was unaware of that operation. “If we had known of another business with ‘chili bowl’ in the name, we would have certainly taken the same legal action,” Ali says.
Holmon also disputes the Ali’s outright dismissal of his business prospects. He says he’s got about $2,500 in start-up cash and is seeking investors. Over the next several weeks, he says he’s scheduled some 17 separate tasting events at local office buildings in order to help promote his own product while looking for a permanent location for the restaurant.
If Holmon’s search for a site is any indication, he could be a thorn in the Ali family’s side for months to come.
“I just noticed a location five blocks from Ben’s is available,” he says. “I’m trying to find out who owns it.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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