As Y&H was discussing last week, the Ali family has no plans to open a Ben’s Chili Bowl on the ground floor of the Grays on Pennsylvania, a planned condo development in the Southeast, despite a sign that implies otherwise. That’s the family’s prerogative, of course, but it makes you wonder: What is the future of Ben’s? The Ali’s must be looking to expand somewhere, right?
Expansion and franchising, after all, are what fast-casual restaurants do. Some locals, like Z-Burger in the District and Elevation Burger in Falls Church, have practically planned on franchising from the moment they drafted their business plans. Others, like Amsterdam Falafelshop, have taken a more cautious approach to spreading their brand. Five Guys, of course, has turned franchising into an art form —- or at least into a license to print money.
Isn’t it time for the Ali’s to cash in, too?
Not so fast, says Nizam Ali. For starters, he says, Ben’s is not like other fast-food restaurants in town. Its history, its legacy, and its very atmosphere separate it from the competition.
Ben’s Chili Bowl oozes character, which is found not just on the walls covered with grip-and-grin celebrity snapshots. It’s also found on the griddle next to the front window where blackened sausages have been glistening with grease for decades. It’s found behind the white counter where employees in Chili Bowl smocks banter and bullshit daily with customers. It’s found in the gurgling juice dispensers, the squeeze bottles of ketchup, the old illuminated menu above the prep station, even in the long, frustrating lines that wind around the place. Hell, it’s even found on the big screen, where Ben’s just got a cameo in the new State of Play thriller.
Such a place is not easy to replicate.
Besides, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a family business, Nizam Ali reminds me. Some member of the Ali clan —- maybe Nizam’s brother Kamal or his cousin Rob —- is always on premise at Ben’s or at the Next Door Restaurant and Bar, Ben’s young alcoholic offspring. The Ali’s even send a family member to every Nats home game to ensure that Ben’s good reputation doesn’t follow the ball team’s down the drain.
Until the family can trust someone else to operate its business, the Ali’s are happy to keep it close at hand. “It’s not about money,” Nizam says. “If it was about money, we would have franchised five years ago —- or yesterday.”
The decision to expand to Nationals Park was relatively easy. No one expects the Chili Bowl experience inside the Nats’ concrete playpen; fans just want a taste of D.C. while watching their hapless team serve up another District tradition —- crappy baseball. Still, Ben’s move to the ball yard did have its complications. Nizam and Kamal had to secure a manufacturer to produce Ben’s famous chili sauce on a large scale, a situation that frankly made big daddy Ben nervous, Nizam says. Papa wasn’t so sure he was ready to share recipes outside the family.
But the Pennsylvania company that now produces the chili has proven to be a loyal ally. It even helped Ben’s save face last season when the Nats’ former concessions operator, Centerplate, once didn’t order enough sauce for a weekend series; the chili company suspected as much and, without prompting, produced extra sauce, which was ready for pick-up when the emergency call did indeed come late on a Friday afternoon, says Nizam who personally drove to Pennsylvania to fetch the 110 containers of chili.
Such calamities (barely) avoided remind the Ali’s that it is not easy to trust others with your business. With a new concessions operator at Nats Park (Levy Restaurants) and a new approach to selling half-smokes at the stadium (sausages will be peddled only at official Ben’s locations and carts, rather than at the generic concession stands throughout the park), the Ali family must maintain a constant watch over its baseball operations, even in this second season. That, combined with managing the still wet-behind-the-ears Next Door, leaves little room for expansion talk.
Nizam Ali, however, will cop to one budding development in the tiny Ben’s empire: The family is preparing to launch a shipping business for those District refugees who can’t live another day without their half-smokes.