Guest speakers, family, dignitaries reflect on Ali’s role in ‘changing the landscape’
Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) held an event for Virginia Ali, a Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award winner at the headquarters of the National Restaurant Association Headquarters. The ceremony held for Ali, the co-founder of Ben’s Chili, a 60-year restaurateur, was very touching. Politicians, industry figureheads and family members spoke about her accomplishments as a leader within the industry and as the face of Ben’s Chili Bowl. This was a splendid event with barbecue tastes and and craft cocktails plentiful, and small bites making their way around to guests.
Several of the those who spoke recalled how Ali has been a person who brought people together and helped make the family restaurant business more resilient. She was the face of hospitality at the business. In the era that Ali became the business leader that she is, times were ever-evolving and the U Street Corridor saw several challenging years. What Ali accomplished with her family was not easy. The neighborhood has seen much transformation, and many business locales have changed hands over the years.
Certainly, the U Street Corridor saw its rise in the 1920’s as an entertainment hub long before the Original Ben’s Chili Bowl was opened with Ali’s late husband, Ben, in 1958. But in the 1960’s, the restaurant sat just a few blocks from the epicenter of uncertainty and economic downturn within the neighborhood. Still, Ben’s Chili Bowl remained steadfast and served as an example of the hard work of Ben and Virginia Ali and their family.
The arrival in the 1980’s of the Reeves Center, a government building, community efforts, resilient business leaders, and revitalization efforts made the U Street Corridor the resurgent neighborhood it is today, A WMATA Metro Station now sits just across from the original Ben’s Chili Bowl. Through thick and thin, Ben’s Chili Bowl was a place to get a good meal in the neighborhood and to experience a warm greeting and smile.
Of course, Ms. Ali was someone who helped change the landscape. “She’s a true living legend, “ said Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. “We just want to say thank you and congratulations. I can’t think of anyone more worthy (of the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award).”
At the RAMW reception, Anthony Williams, a former D.C. mayor, said “She’s so much of the heart and soul of D.C.” Ali has been referred to as “mom” over the years by many, said son Kamal Ali. She was a person that epitomized the values she grew up with and were further fortified by her church. Ali had staying power, added her son. She and the restaurant had more staying power than many of the businesses in the U Street Corridor
Today, Ben’s Chili Bowl has two additional locations and its timeless dishes are also served at FedEx Field and Nats Park. Ali was surrounded by family as she listened to all the warm remarks by guest speakers and local dignitaries, and was visibly touched. RAMW will award her the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award trophy at the RAMMYS Gala June 30 at the Walter E. Convention Center.
One of the reasons for Ali’s selection as a Duke Zeibert Award recipient is her giving back to the community. The Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation, in which Ali has been active, was started in 2010. Ali has also served on the Board of Directors of For Love of Children, The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, the Islamic Society of the Greater Washington Area, and Cultural Tourism DC, among others. Her contributions and exemplary achievement as a restaurateur made her a natural choice to be this year’s Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award recipient.
Photo credit: Eatery Pulse Media (featured, inline collage), Ben’s Chili Bowl (inline, top right photo)
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