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Pandemic Threatens Historic D.C. Restaurant

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Another group of Americans facing uncertainty because of the coronavirus are small business owners. Restaurants in particular are feeling the effects of widespread stay-at-home orders, with many having to limit their hours and service or shut down, entirely. Even businesses that have been open for decades are now having to make wrenching choices to keep those doors open, including a Washington, D.C., landmark, Ben's Chili Bowl.

SAGE ALI: Everyone's always been welcomed as family. And so that's what we've always been known for as well as great food.

MARTIN: That's Sage Ali. He is one of the owners of Ben's Chili Bowl, the legendary restaurant on U Street here in Washington, D.C. His parents, Ben and Virginia Ali, opened the Chili Bowl in 1958.

ALI: At that time, D.C. was segregated, so U Street was considered black Broadway. And it was really the go-to place for people who wanted to kind of come out, hang out - celebrities, radio personalities, jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. Lots of the top guys were around at that time, very special time. And then Ben's went through the '68 riots, went through subway construction. So we've survived quite a bit, and we're still there today. And we're still a little family business just like we were 61 1/2 years ago.

MARTIN: Now, though, the Alis are having to deal with the challenges due to the coronavirus. Two of their three D.C. area locations have closed. Only the flagship on U Street remains open for takeout, which can only fit three people at a time. Gone are the late-night crowds, tourists and the many D.C. residents that stop in for their signature dish, the half smoke.

ALI: It felt like we landed on another planet. It just felt strange. It's like all of a sudden, like, you know, what happened? What's going on? And, you know, we can say that for us, but I would say that all of D.C., all of America and probably all of the world kind of went through the same thing at around the same time.

MARTIN: Despite their popularity and decades running the restaurant, having to adjust to the new business climate and seeking help has been an uphill battle.

ALI: There have been new surprises almost every day and definitely every week, you know. We're adapting on a daily basis.

MARTIN: While every day brings something new for Ali and his siblings, who co-own the restaurant, he says they've been amazed by the outpouring of community support for Ben's Chili Bowl, including from a sitting U.S. senator.

ALI: When someone like Kamala Harris, who's somewhere else in the country, tweets that Ben's Chili Bowl cannot go away and, you know, that she reminisced about her college days and coming to Ben's all the time when she was in the D.C. area, you know, when you read things like that, when you hear things like that, it's like wow.

MARTIN: And although they may be struggling right now, Ali and his family are still trying to put their local community first, something they've made a priority at the restaurant since its founding.

ALI: When someone wants to help us by donating with a gift card purchase to us, we're using that money to buy meals for first responders, for those in need in the community.

MARTIN: Ali and his family got word that they had been approved for a paycheck protection program loan for small businesses from the federal government just a few days ago. The loan will help cover payroll for restaurant staff. But with other expenses mounting fast, the future for Ben's Chili Bowl and other small businesses around the country remains unknown.

ALI: We're not out of the woods by a long shot, but it certainly feels better to have at least some resource on the table. We need to understand that better, but it does feel good to at least be in that better position.

MARTIN: That's Sage Ali, one of the owners of Ben's Chili Bowl here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.