Virginia Ali, owner of historic D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl, got her start at a community bank.
By Khalil GarriottThe gentleman in his 20s was persistent and laser-focused on a vision for his personal and professional life. He was insistent on pursuing his future life partner.
He worked at a local restaurant, coming to nearby Industrial Bank to deposit his paychecks. He came to her window three straight days—choosing to wait for her, even when other tellers weren’t busy—eventually leaving a note with his name and phone number, asking her to call him. But she did not.
“Another day, just before the bank’s 2 p.m. closing time, he called the bank and asked to speak to her. He said, “This is Ben Ali. Why didn’t you call me?” She replied, “Well, I don’t know you, sir. And I don’t normally call men I don’t know.” His answer: “Well, what would you like to know?
Before Virginia Ali, née Rollins, could respond, he proceeded to rattle off his entire life story to her. While playing the name game, they established some common connections from Howard University, so she felt comfortable giving her home phone number to him. They spent time together that evening (accompanied by a mutual friend), and the rest was history. The couple got engaged in 1958, when he asked for her hand in marriage—and her interest in partnering with him to open a little restaurant. “And I said yes,” recalls Ali.
That “little restaurant” has become iconic. Ben’s Chili Bowl is a longtime Washington, D.C., institution. As its owner and cofounder, Virginia Ali is 89 years young and still works there a minimum of five days per week. Its humble beginnings trace back to her first job as a bank teller, a six-year run that laid the foundation for decades upon decades of career success.
‘A wonderful place to work’
Ali started in the Industrial Bank bookkeeping department for almost a year before becoming a commercial teller. “It was there that I realized how much I enjoyed working with people, meeting people from all walks of life and different backgrounds,” she reflects. “Being able to interact with people was something I truly loved, and Industrial Bank was a wonderful place to work back in those days.”
“There were many wonderful experiences of working at the bank,” Ali says. “It served me well in many ways. I made lifetime friendships and met people throughout the community.” When it came time to open the Chili Bowl, she knew who to call.
“I knew where to find the architect, the contractor, the plumber, the electrician and the cabinet maker—businesses that were Black-owned and in the community, two or three blocks away,” she says. “And they served us for the duration of their careers. It was wonderful.”
When they looked for the ideal location, Ben and Virginia desired so-called “Black Broadway” on U Street, a short distance from Howard. Because D.C. was still segregated, they couldn’t go downtown. So she’d see the same people when going out in the evenings as she saw during the day as bank customers.
The critical role of Black-owned banks
Industrial Bank, the first Black-owned bank in Washington, D.C., is one of the country’s last surviving Black banks. “Black banks have been in communities all over the country, and that has served a great purpose,” Ali says. “It’s still necessary for the country. You get to know the community, and when you learn to treat people the way you like to be treated yourself, it just works.”
ABA has partnered with the National Bankers Association—which represents minority banks—to develop resources and programs, including an MDI Partnership Summit series. The series brings together minority bank leaders with regional and midsize banks to better serve low-to-moderate-income areas and communities of color. ABA also has a Black Banker Employee Resource Group, a forum for Black bankers and all bank professionals seeking to advance Black employees’ sense of industry belonging.
Many Black bankers work in smaller organizations without access to other Black peers. This reality limits their sense of belonging within the banking sector. Ali’s useful advice for Black bankers will help them find the sense of belonging they seek.
“I think it’s a very necessary service,” Ali says of these ABA programs. “There are still underprivileged communities in this country, and those small banks—and Black-owned banks, in particular—can certainly do so much to help. And [ABA] is there to help them keep up with the rules and [regulations]that are changing so much today.
“We certainly need to hold onto those banks that still exist, and they need all the help they can get so that they can help the community.”
An historic landmark
Ali, who has lived in the nation’s capital since 1952, maintains an impressive recall of details from decades gone by—including what others might regard as minutiae like business hours and food ingredients. Ben’s original chili half-smoke, a hot dog with mustard, onions and spicy, homemade chili, is D.C.’s signature dish. And she points out that her restaurant has “the best milkshakes in town.” As Morley Safer once described the establishment in a 60 Minutes episode, “it’s like grandma’s kitchen.”
The Chili Bowl opened its doors to the community on Aug. 22, 1958, when Ali was just 24. Its 65th birthday party, this August, will be a celebration to remember. “We’re going to be closing down U Street and having a really big party,” says Ali, inviting all to join.
A-list celebrities who have dined at Ben’s run the gamut from musicians and actors to presidents and athletes. Bono, Bruno Mars, Jimmy Fallon, Denzel Washington, George W. Bush, Kevin Durant, Serena Williams, Chris Rock and Chaka Khan are among them.
But one appearance from a [then]soon-to-be occupant of the White House stands out for Ali. President Barack Obama’s first outing after moving to Washington, D.C. as president-elect was to Ben’s Chili Bowl. He ate lunch there 10 days before his 2009 inauguration, and a framed photo of that visit adorns a wall in the restaurant. “That was a real pleasure for me,” she says.
Ali vividly recounts when a young preacher from Georgia came to D.C. to share his dream. He came into the Chili Bowl on several occasions in 1963 as he planned his March on Washington. Ben and Virginia served the marchers for several days and donated food to the history-making effort.
“Dr. King, a young John Lewis and a few others met with President Kennedy,” she recalls. “And he told President Kennedy that they were here to focus on the injustices of Black people and that they were going to organize a protest march to bring attention to those injustices.”
She adds, with a reflective smile, “And he said to me, ‘President Kennedy said he didn’t think it was a good idea because if there’s an incident, it would set our movement back.’ Dr. King said there wouldn’t be an incident. He brought 250,000 people to Washington on that day. Ben and I were there; it was amazing. Just a sea of people as far as you could see. We felt like change definitely was going to come, and it did.”
Five years later, everything changed again. Ali can recall learning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Someone brought a transistor radio sharing the news. People were sobbing openly in the restaurant.
During and after the ensuing 1968 D.C. riots, which centered on the U Street and 14th Street corridors, Ben’s was permitted to stay open as a safe harbor providing food and shelter.
“Sadness turned into frustration, and frustration turned into anger,” she says. “We literally destroyed that community. It was a painful thing to watch.”
‘I love the banking industry’
Ali’s origin story all comes back to banking. She still has an Industrial Bank account number with three numbers. “When I started at Industrial Bank, there were no numbers; it was alphabetical,” she says.
Industrial has been at its original location for 86 years and counting—operated by only one family for that entire time. Ali is immensely proud, knowing a thing or two about the importance of being a longstanding community pillar.
“I love the banking industry and the work they do in the communities they serve,” she says. “We couldn’t make it without our banks.”
Khalil Garriott is senior editor at ABA Banking Journal.
Photos by Karen Martin and Elia Seba.