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No one but the employees knew about Ben Ali’s death.
The managers of Ben’s Chili Bowl had told their employees this morning that Ben Ali died in his bed last night, but they didn’t want their customers in the restaurant to know yet. So there was nary a clue at the landmark U Street eatery. No signs. No weeping employees. Only a Web notice for those who had somehow checked it before arriving.
The only thing at Ben’s that might have tipped off an attentive diner was the music. It was soul music, the mournful variety. “Never Can Say Goodbye,” by the Jackson 5 was playing softly in the background, the band’s lead singer just a memory now, too.
“The mood is very somber,” said Sonya Ali, wife of Kamal Ali, one of the two surviving brothers who now run Ben’s. “The music is even somber.”
Sonya Ali said the entire family was gathering at Ben and Virginia Ali’s home in North Portal, including Sage, an artist and musician who lives in California. Sage’s wife, Sonya Ali noted, is a publicist and will help the family plan a public announcement and figure out how to honor the man who founded what has become, courtesy of Bill Cosby and President Barack Obama, D.C.’s most famous restaurant.
The family is “as well as can be expected,” Sonya Ali said, including wife, Virginia, who married Ben in October 1958, just two months after opening Ben’s Chili Bowl. The couple would have celebrated their 51st anniversary on Saturday.
“She believed in him then and to the very end,” Sonya Ali said.
Employees were shocked but supportive when managers broke the news this morning. The family, Sonya Ali said, had no immediate plans to close today or through whatever private and public funeral arrangements are eventually announced. “I don’t think so,” Sonya Ali said. “That’s not what he’d want…He doesn’t want a lot of fanfare.”
Manager Maurice Harcum had known Ben Ali for 10 years, ever since the founder hired him for the night shift at Ben’s. Ben Ali, despite his failing health, showed up at his namesake restaurant at least once a week, Harcum said, but he couldn’t eat the half-smokes and chili that had made him famous.
“Mrs. Ali wouldn’t let him,” Harcum said. “He still loved his milkshakes, though.”
Vanilla was Ben Ali’s flavor, the manager said, and he had to settle on the small size, for his health’s sake.
Employees, managers, and family all said Ben Ali was a great businessman. “He knew how to get things done,” said Sonya Ali, who performs a variety of tasks for the family businesses, including Ben’s Next Door, the full-service restaurant right next to Ben’s.
“I’m not saying that I agreed with him all time,” Sonya Ali added after a beat. “He was a man determined to have his way.”
Nizam Ali agreed. He said his father was “persistent,” “strong willed,” and had a “great business mind.”
“He took control of each moment,” Nizam Ali added. “He lived life the way that he wanted to. No regrets.”
Asked to try to put his father’s legacy in perspective, Nizam Ali understandably struggled for words. Then he said his father’s “story, as an immigrant from Trinidad, is probably the ultimate American dream.”
If the family was holding it together well, at least publicly, one loyal customer was shocked. As he waited in line for his usual hot dog, Keith Turner first heard the news from a reporter.
“Wow,” he said, “I hadn’t heard that…I’m kind of stunned. You kind of caught me off guard.”
Turner, 42, has been frequenting Ben’s since 1985, he said. The window tinter said he was doing a job at nearby Cardozo High School and decided to grab his usual lunch at Ben’s: a simple griddled hot dog. He likes the char on it.
And with that, he turned to the counter and ordered his hot dog.
More photos from the first day at Ben’s Chili Bowl without Ben Ali: