Ben’s Chili Bowl owner Virginia Ali—as much a local treasure as the restaurant she founded with her husband Ben Ali in 1958—turns 87 today. Earlier this fall, we asked Ali what she was most grateful for amid such a difficult year.
What’s this pandemic been like for Ben’s as a business and you personally?
It’s certainly been a challenge for the business, of course, as it has for all businesses and particularly small ones. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in my 87 years. We’re doing our best day by day. The love and support that we’ve gotten from our community has been absolutely heartwarming.
Because I am almost 87, I’ve been asked not to hang out there as much as I normally do. It’s just a pleasure for me to meet and greet our guests and see our team members. It keeps me healthy and I miss being able to do that, although I sneak into it way too often. I stayed at home the first month and I thought, ‘OK, this is not healthy for me.’ My energy comes from the Chili Bowl. When I walk in the door and I meet these wonderful people from all walks of life and from all over the world, I am just energized. But now I’m not able to do that so much. There’s large tour groups and people from all over the country and our neighbors and everything. We want everybody to be safe and to be healthy.
How is Ben’s doing?
We just have to stay there day in and day out as a family and serve our guests. We’re going to keep it going. We’re going to do our very best to keep it going. It’s difficult because we had these hours 7 AM to 3 AM and 4 AM on weekends. Well, that’s all gone. So we’re taking it one day at a time.
What do your kids say about you going into the store and your own personal risk?
They’ve made sure that I’ve got all the sanitation I need. I’ve got my mask and all kinds of things. And so I promised to protect myself with a mask at all times. And hand sanitizers in my car and my house and my office and everywhere I go. They would like me not to mingle too much with large crowds, and so I don’t. I do the one-on-one and keep the social distancing there going, and I think that keeps you healthy, I really do.
Are there specific gestures that you’ve been particularly grateful for?
The very warm letters of support and encouragement—and many with checks. We take those checks and turn them into giving back to our community by providing lunches for the medical staff at Howard University Hospital or the Washington Hospital Center and the fire department, some teachers, and even the [Black Lives Matter] demonstrators.
How many letters have you received?
Oh my gosh, we’ve received quite a few letters of encouragement. We’ve been into the community for 62 years, so we’ve got three or four generations. We’ve got the older folks that are calling and saying, ‘Ben’s cannot go anyplace.” And then the younger folks that have come to school here, just generations of them from out of town and locally, that say Ben’s was a part of their college experience or Ben’s was a part of their childhood experience and ‘we need you to stay in place and included is a check for $25 or $500 or whatever.’
Do you have any indulgences or daily rituals that you’re grateful for?
I’ve got a great appetite, and I’m still able to eat anything I want. I can have my beef chili dogs anytime I want, and I love our chocolate shakes, and I’m still able to have that. I did have the beef chili dog every day for about 30 years. I don’t do it every single day anymore, but I have it as often as I like. I have a chocolate milkshake maybe about three times a week.