Ben’s Chili Bowl, a fast food diner located in the heart of Washington, D.C., was one of few businesses left standing when riots erupted after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. The U Street location is home to an iconic mural painted on its building, and is filled with autographed pictures of politicians and celebrities who frequent the restaurant.
Regardless of its cultural and social significance, Ben’s Chili Bowl is not immune to the economic pressure of COVID-19. In fact, the family owners told The Federalist the restaurant is devastated.
“We were booming and doing great before the whole COVID-19 thing. And then when COVID-19 hit us, it devastated us tremendously and we ended up dropping [sales] over 80 percent. It was over night,” owner Sage Ali said.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is awaiting a loan from the Small Business Association’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in which Congress authorized $349 billion in relief for small businesses. Ali described the process of applying for the PPP as “extensive.”
“This PPP loan had to go through a bank. As far as we were told… we would not be able to apply directly. We would have to go through a bank,” Ali said. “There was a lot that they asked us to give … the three previous tax filings, the amount of payroll details, how many employees, how many were full-time, how many part-time, the number that are working now, the number working in 2019, etc.”
Unfortunately, the business was unable to apply for a PPP loan before the portal for the first wave of applications closed. On Monday, April 27, the SBA loan portal attempted to open, but crashed within moments of reopening.
“Our bank assured us that they would have everything ready to go and it was just a matter of pushing a button to submit, and that as soon as the portal was open it would be done. Our PPP loan should be done now,” Ali said. “We’re optimistic.”
Like plenty of businesses across the nation, Ben’s Chili Bowl has multiple locations. The name is attached to nine different locations, five of which are franchises. The other four locations are owned and operated by the Ali family — including the iconic U Street location.
Due to COVID-19, the Ali family was forced to shut down all their locations and franchises except the U Street store.
“The only entity that is open right now is Ben’s Chili Bowl U Street. Everything else COVID-19 just hit so hard that everything else is closed.”
The family said they will do anything to keep the business operating and alive during the unprecedented coronavirus lockdown.
“One thing that the family has always committed to is that the original location has been there for 62 years now, we’ll never close. I mean we want to keep that for generations, it’s so meaningful,” Ali said. “Myself, my wife, my brother, his wife, all of us are actually behind the counter working these days, in addition of our employees, just doing the best we can.”
Despite even the hardest efforts to keep their business afloat, two realities hinder Ben’s Chili Bowl from timely financial recovery. The first being intense government intervention.
In the bordering state of Virginia, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said Phase One of reopening the state could last as long as two years. Ali said Ben’s Chili Bowl would certainly struggle to make it out of this prolonged, government-induced economic hardship.
“We’re determined to make sure that U Street survives, whatever that means. Our family is just going to keep that going. We believe we have enough love and support from the community to at least keep that [location] going. But, two years is a long time, and that would be a huge challenge. If it went that long, my quick, short answer would have been no [we won’t make it],” Ali said.
Regardless, Ali said the family will do everything in its power to keep the U Street location as they feel a true sense of social responsibility.
“We feel a social responsibility to keep [U Street location] alive even if we’re just making it or barely breaking even. There are times when we’re losing money, but we still want to keep it alive for the community. So, that’s a commitment that’s at a different level. The odds of any small restaurant surviving two years under those conditions is very difficult,” Ali said.
In trying to imagine what the diner will look like if social distancing guidelines are prolonged or customers no longer want to dine-in, Ali said the social capital of the restaurant is a drawing factor for tourists and local alike.
“If all of the sudden, our capacity is cut in half because people can’t sit next to each other or in tables next to each other, we have to just navigate all of this a step at a time. Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a wonderful gathering place for not just the DC, Maryland, Virginia community, but even for people around the world. For them, it’s not just a tourist destination, it’s a place that feels like home, ” Ali said. “The interaction means a lot…we don’t know what social interaction is going to look like as we move forward.”
Regardless of the new standards, Ben’s Chili Bowl is attempting to innovate in its newfound quarantine operation.
“If you were to walk in today, you’re going to see maybe three or four customers inside. You’re going to see a bunch outside, standing, waiting for their orders to be called. You’re going to see a few of us behind the counter,” Ali said. “Most of our orders are popping up on a screen and we have to have a different organizational system all together. It’s already new. All of business is call in, delivery, curbside, etc. We have adapted.”
On Tuesday, April 28, Ben’s Chili Bowl received it’s much needed loan from the PPP.
“We are very, very thankful for the love and support from everybody,” Ali said. “We hope other small businesses receive their funds as well.”