Former employee to take a bite out of Ben’s Chili Bowl market

Paul D. Shinkman,
Twitter: @ShinkmanWTOP

WASHINGTON – Watch out Ben’s, there’s a new chili bowl in town.

A former employee of the U Street greasy spoon stalwart plans to open up a competing restaurant on H Street in Northeast, the same neighborhood where the tight-knit clan of Ben’s Chili Bowl founder Ben Ali plans to open a new franchise.

Anthony Ulysses Holmon hopes to gain an edge on the stick-to-your-ribs food market through some items to the menu he considers essential, and that he couldn’t convince his former employers — who he says are indifferent to change — to adopt.

“I believe the Hebrew hot dog is a better tasting beef dog, plus it’s a kosher product,” Holmon tells WTOP of the non-Kosher half-smokes that put 54-year-old Ben’s Chili Bowl on the map. “You want to offer the product to everybody, all nationalities. That will add another layer of customers.”

Holmon’s alternative, D.C. Chili Bowl, plans to serve fried onions, sauerkraut and cornbread — all ingredients unavailable at the purist U Street hub. They are already catering to downtown businesses while they settle on a permanent location. Along with partner and former colleague Menyana Williams, they will also serve turkey chili and turkey sauce, contrasted against the beef versions at Ben’s.

The owners of Ben’s, all family of the late Ben Ali, stand by their product.

“We’ve been consistent since 1958,” says daughter-in-law Vida Ali, one of the owners. “So, in staying consistent, we won’t change things as fried onions and so forth.”

Holmon’s style of management was “different from the style of Ben’s,” Ali says. “We catered and took care of the customers, and his was a little different than that.”

The culture at Ben’s doesn’t properly serve the customer, Holmon says, and he hopes to change that at his establishment.

“They’ve been in business for 50 years, so listening to someone else’s opinion is not something they choose to do,” he says. “If the customer wants to support you to pay your bills and help better your vision, you have to tweak some things for them.”

Holmon had been working on a “Ben’s Chili Bowl franchise transition report,” to present to other owners, sons Nizam and Kamal Ali, outlining how he would expand the business to suit a varying clientele. He didn’t get the response he was looking for so, citing “irreconcilable differences,” he took it out the door.

Vida Ali confirms Holmon approached them with new ideas, but didn’t discuss any specific changes, she says, adding it “was best that he moved on,” and that it was not a “negative departure.”

“We definitely paid our dues for almost the last four years,” Holmon says. “If we’ve been doing that long, and can’t institute changes on U Street or institute any changes at all, why not take the changes we have and make them work for us?”

Ben’s Chili Bowl announced its expansion to serve Redskins fans at FedEx Field last September, and to Nationals Stadium when it opened in 2008. Holmon says he oversaw both of those — working directly for those facilities’ food service provider — as well as other ventures around the city, such as Ben’s participation in Adams Morgan Day.

Vida Ali says Holmon first came to the U Street restaurant asking for work after “I believe he was let go,” and they gave him a chance.

“Mom and Pop started the business 53 years ago and have employed thousands of employees and have helped a lot of people in the community,” she says, “so we thought we’d give him an opportunity at the bowl.”

He eventually left amicably. Vida Ali says Ben’s wishes him well, and is not fazed by his newest endeavor.

“Mom said it best: We never see anything as a competition,” she says, stressing D.C. Chili Bowl has no affiliation with Ben’s Chili Bowl. “Each person or restaurant stands on its own.”

The City Paper announced Ben’s plans to expand to H Street last October.

Holmon’s humble beginnings as a dishwasher at the Georgetown University Law Center eventually lead to positions as the acting chef there, and further culinary jobs at the House and Senate Office buildings, as well as the CIA. He worked at Ruth’s Chris steakhouse and changed their recipe for onion rings, he says, which they instituted at their franchises nationally.

But he won’t be taking any privileged information from Ben’s, he says. Their chili recipes are closely guarded by the family. Holmon also maintains he isn’t trying to compete with Ben’s directly, and it’s only a coincidence he found a space by the shopping complex at the east end of the H Street corridor, where Ben’s plans to expand. He’s hopes to finalize the paperwork for the completed restaurant space with the owner in two to three weeks.

“We’re just people that are passionate about food, so it’s in no way a competition with them,” he says.

The self-proclaimed “licensed seasonologist” hopes to rely on his own soul food experience, and approach to serving customers.

“I look at a meal as a work of art,” Holmon says. “That transfers to one, the customer cares about what you’re doing, two, you know you’ll get a quality product, three, they realize you appreciate them more than you appreciate their dollar.”

Until the restaurant space is finalized, D.C. Chili Bowl is catering to offices to sample their food. Check out the restaurant on Twitter.

Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad who moved to Washington and studied at Howard University, opened the restaurant with his wife Virginia in an old movie house in 1958.

The area was then known as America’s “Black Broadway” for its thriving black-owned shops and theaters. Jazz greats Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole performed along the strip and were known to visit Ben’s.

More recently, Bill Cosby has been a favorite guest — joining Ali to celebrate the diner’s 45th anniversary — as well as President Barack Obama in January. After the 2008 presidential election, the Ali family put up a sign: “Who eats free at Ben’s: — Bill Cosby — The Obama Family.”

Before that, only Cosby ate for free.

Then-D.C. Council chairman Vincent Gray called the landmark a meeting place for the D.C. community and said Ali was an “iconic figure” in the city. Ali died in 2009.

Follow Paul D. Shinkman and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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