Ben’s Chili Bowl planning to franchise, expand beyond the DC area

Home of D.C.'s signature half-smokes and chili, Ben's Chili Bowl has been serving hungry late night customers on U Street since 1958. Famous drop-ins have included Bill Cosby, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King. Jr. and President Barack Obama. (WTOP/Heather Brady)
Ben’s Chili Bowl’s famous half-smokes are one of D.C.’s most iconic foods. Soon, they could be available outside the D.C. area.

“We’re actually planning right now … to launch franchising and expand stores in 2024,” Vida Ali told WTOP’s Melissa Howell. Ali is the daughter-in-law of Virginia Ali, who opened the first Ben’s Chili Bowl with Ben Ali in D.C. in 1958.

Ali said they’re planning on making an official announcement at the end of this year. Ali didn’t say which states they’re expanding to, but said they’re “going beyond the DMV to other states.”

The plan is to start locally, Ali said, expand regionally, and if all goes as planned, nationally.

The news comes on the heels of Thursday’s announcement that Ben’s spicy half-smokes, chili and more will be available in Giant grocery stores in D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Ben’s items are also available at D.C.-area Costco stores.

Virginia Ali has been serving up community topped with hot chili for nearly 65 years, along with her husband Ben, who passed away in 2009. “He wanted to bring spice to America,” Vida Ali said in regards to Ben.

“They started off just with the plan to feed their family and with $5,000 and a dream,” Ali said. The store currently has six locations, including three in D.C. — the original location on U Street in Northwest, H Street in Northeast and in three sections inside Nationals Park. There’s also a Ben’s at FedEx Field in Hyattsville, Maryland, another in Maryland at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore and the lone Virginia store at Reagan National Airport.

Ali said a lot of people come to Ben’s for more than just the staples on the menu.

“A lot more guests are coming in and saying what Ben’s means to our culture, to our community, and how we have served, you know, the community,” Ali said. “Our mission is to set up Ben’s … to really go back and be in the community and serve communities like we do in D.C.”

Ali said expansion is a challenge they’re posing for themselves.

“We definitely get the love and support from, you know, the DMV and through thick and thin, we’ve had the love and support of everyone,” Ali said. “So we kind of want to challenge ourselves to see how big this brand can go.”

Close to home, Ben’s Chili Bowl will be at the 31st annual Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle this weekend on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Third and Seventh Streets. The event will take place Saturday, June 24, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, June 25, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the relationship between Vida Ali and Ben and Virginia Ali. 

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

David Andrews

No stranger to local news, David Andrews has contributed to DCist, Greater Greater Washington and was fellow at Washingtonian Magazine. He worked as a photo/videographer for University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

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