The story of the origin of Ben's Chilli bowl told to me was another guy started the business as a front to cover for his illegal goings on. Back in the day most street "business men" had fronts to hide where their money came from: Number runners, fences, general hustlers, etc. They generally paid off the local cops in those pre civil rights days, and went back to work. When he was caught and knew he was headed to prison, he had hired a woman to run the business, but while he was gone that woman as time went on, married Ben. They changed the name, and the rest is history. That is how Ben got his name on the shop we all know today. And they have done well. I thought it was just an old timer telling me a barbershop tale about old DC, and U street in particular. But I guess there is a lot about DC in the 50's and 60's that is lost to history. Rest in peace.
This is the link to the history of Ben's. I have been able to find no other reference to it being a restaurant before it was Ben's. According tothe site, Ben worked on remodeling his business himself, a story I heard repeated during its 50th anniversary celebration.
In the many obituaries and stories of the celebration of Ben Ali's life, tehre have been no other references to anything like this story.
As far as your characterization of most businesses being fronts for illegal activity, why do you make tht statement? My family, for example, owned buisinesses on Central Avenue is South Central LA and were honest, hard working businessmen as were most of their neighbors. There was a ot of crime on Central Avenue: Drugs, Gambling and prostitution were common. But there were hard working business people making an honest living serving their neighbors. I am sure the situation was similar in Washington DC. Do you have any sourcess that confirm your slur on the many hard whorking and honest business owners in DC at that time?
In fact, your story isjust your retellingo f a story you heard, presented after the death of a manwho is held in great honor in DC.
There once was a wise person who always asked three questions before making a statement about others.
Is it kind?
is it necessary?
Is it true?
A measure of our success in life is not how much money we leave behind, but how many lives we touched. Ben Ali was a giant by that scale and we should honor him as such.
Not to fuss with you Dean, but In DC that story was around long before Ben died. There is a big difference in printed "Official" history and demographic black social history. Like many ethnics out side the Officially accepted mold, they would keep things among them selves. Now read more US history about the crime and the origin of business's. Most ghetto, Emigrant business got its start, from or was nourished or interwoven with crime. It is part of our history. There is no shame in that, now or then.
Ben ran a great shop.No doubt. But it didn't attract or stand out as much in DC until Cosby stopped by. and then the neighborhood demographics changed. Most folks that live here before then wonder what all the fuss is about. But it is a DC landmark no doubt about it.
To be fair, and give you some perspective, Duke Ellington: Another DC Icon. A great many of his hits were written by Billy Strayhorn. Duke just took advantage of him, knew he was gay, and the rest is "history"
Rosa Parks: Not the first black woman that refused to give up her seat on a bus in the south. But by now Im sure you get the idea: You either do your home work, or go along with popular culture. Go get a chillie half smoke will ya
If I'm ever in DC which has been to few since I opened my business enjoying the atmosphere and eating a chili dog at Bens was always a must. I'd always have to double park out front or on the corner nearby the mad dash back to my car was always worth it! Thanks for the story.