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A Chat With Nizam Ali


DonRocks
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Posted 02 October 2013 - 04:32 PM

Several years ago, I was at a party way out in a Virginia exurb. My friend and I were introduced to a lovely young couple, Jyotika and Nizam, and the conversation unfolded like this:
 
<Jyotika> "Did you say your last name was Rockwell?"
 
"Yes."
 
"Was your mom by any chance a teacher?"
 
"Yes, she taught first and second grade in Montgomery County for 30 years."
 
"Oh my gosh! Your mom was my teacher! I loved her!"
 
Wow, it always means so much to me when that happens, especially in a completely random situation such as this. We all continued talking, and as so often happens, "The" Washingtonian question came up.
 
<Me> "So what do you do, Nizam?"
 
"My family owns a restaurant in Washington, and I work there."
 
"Really? Which restaurant?"
 
"Ben's Chili Bowl."
 
"Are you Nizam ALI?!"
 
<He looked at me funny.>
 
"Yes, how do you know this?"
 
"Oh my gosh! ...."
 
---
 
Nizam is the youngest of 3 boys. The middle brother, Kamal, is 8 years older, and started carrying the torch of running Ben's Chili Bowl right after school - he has been there for over 25 years now. Nizam worked at Ben's growing up, but started full-time about 15 years ago. The eldest brother, Sage, was a musician and Lived in Los Angeles for over 25 years. Sage and his wife moved back to DC about 3 years ago to take care of their mom after Ben Ali, founder of Ben's, passed on in 2009. All 3 brothers, and both Kamal's and Sage's wives, are now working for the business.
 
As to what's next: Ben's Chili Bowl is opening in Rosslyn in the old Ray's Hellburger space at 1725 Wilson Blvd., hopefully by the beginning of 2014. After that? H Street (!) and National Airport should be coming online in the middle of the year.
 
On October 12th (10 days from now), Ben's is hosting the World Chili Eating Championship at 3 PM at the Taste Of DC, on their main stage. There will also be a military competition at 2:30 PM. For the 3 PM competition, the main eaters from MLE (Major League Eating) will be there, including Tim "Eater X" Janus who last year ate TWO GALLONS of their Chili Con Carne in 6 minutes! Also in the competition will be Sonja "The Black Widow" Thomas and many others.
 
At Next Door (the restaurant adjacent to Ben's with the *humongous* bar), on Thursday, October 10th at 6 PM, they will be introducing a new beer called U St. Brew. It's a collaboration between Nizam, Chip Ellis at the Howard Theatre, and Stephen Demczuk at Baltimore-Washington Beerworks (home of Raven Beer). So it will be exclusive for a bit at Next Door and the Howard Theatre, and then will be open for other bars and restaurants to sell. $.25 from every glass will go to the Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation, and $.25 will go to the Howard Theatre Foundation.
 
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Nizam's "official" biography is below, but I'd like to add a personal note. In 2011, my beloved mom passed away, and both Jyotika and Nizam came to her service. They didn't make some token appearance; even though they knew virtually nobody there, they stayed for well over an hour, chatting and meeting my mom's acquaintances, as the Rockwell family was tugged this way and that, greeting other visitors. I will never forget this gesture of respect and kindness they showed to my mom, and I hope I can show equal respect to Mr. Ben Ali with this interview with Nizam. Thank you in advance, Nizam, for being here with us!
 
Everyone, please welcome Nizam, and feel free to chat about everything from the 1968 riots, to Bill Cosby and Barrack Obama, to the 2014 openings. Here's the Wikipedia entry for Ben's Chili Bowl & Ben's Next Door
 
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Nizam Ben Ali

Ben's Chili Bowl & Ben's Next Door

 
 
A Washington, DC native, Nizam has been working in his family's historic restaurant, Ben's Chili Bowl, since he was a child.  Opened in 1958 on U Street by his parents Ben and Virginia Ali, it was there that he learned basic fundamental business principles including customer service, business and work ethics, and giving back to the community.  
 
Nizam attended the University of Virginia, where he received a B.A. in Sociology.  Here, he fell in love with radio, deejaying on three different stations simultaneously.  He also had internships at Washington's WKYS, WHUR, and BET, which led to paid positions at the latter two stations.  It was these experiences that Nizam would later call upon to help him market and publicize Ben's.
 
After college, Nizam spent the next year working at "The Bowl." Looking for what he thought must be an easier career option, he began applying to law schools.  Three years later, he received his J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law; after passing the bar, he began practicing law in Maryland. 
 
Less than a year later, after working with his family to plan and execute a 40th anniversary celebration for both Ben's Chili Bowl and his parents, Nizam rediscovered the love that so many people had for the Chili Bowl and decided to return full-time to Ben's. Since then, he and his brothers Kamal and Sage, and their wives, have worked tirelessly to not only continue the legacy that his parents created, but to take Ben's to the next level.  
 
Over the years, Nizam has been integral in the success and growth of the Ben's brand.  He has helped open Ben's locations at Nationals Park and FedEx Field, and is on track to open 4 other locations in the next 12 months.  He and his family have also enjoyed success with their restaurant and bar Ben's Next Door, a Ben's Chili Bowl gift shop, and their online store where customers can order Ben's favorites to be shipped to any of the 50 states.  
 
Nizam's other rewarding accomplishments have been the creation of a Ben's Chili Bowl smartphone app, partnering with Cultural Tourism DC to open DC's first neighborhood visitors center above Next Door, and co-authoring the book Ben's Chili Bowl: 50 Years of a Washington DC Landmark.  Additionally, Nizam worked hand-in hand with The George Washington University's Gelman Library, who has now archived all of his family's historic papers and Ben's Chili Bowl artifacts.  Of particular note, Nizam is very proud of his participation in the FBI Citizen's Academy at the Washington Field Office and his stay on the USS Enterprise as part of the Navy's Distinguished Visitor's Program.
 
Nizam currently serves as Chairman of the nonprofit Think Local FIrst, Vice Chairman of The Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation, Secretary of Destination DC, and is a former board member of Teaching For Change.  He is married to Jyotika Vazirani, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and psychotherapist, and the two have a wonderful 8 year old son

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Great choice.  Terrific long term DC institution and interesting to see them first expand into the sports venues and now open new retail locations.   Good luck to the family with the expansion(s) and I look forward to seeing what he has to say.

...and btw:   terrific story about your mom and a former student.   It must have made you feel terrific.  That is an beautiful testimonial.  I invited a former teacher to my wedding.  They can be so inspirational!!!

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whew. Thought it was gonna be Roberto.

Me too. Welcome Nazim!

This question may be obvious, but I'll ask anyway - Ben's on U street is an iconic location - as Ben's moves to VA and on to H street, are there elements of the original location that you hope to replicate in the new locations?

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Me too. Welcome Nazim!

This question may be obvious, but I'll ask anyway - Ben's on U street is an iconic location - as Ben's moves to VA and on to H street, are there elements of the original location that you hope to replicate in the new locations?

And to piggy back off of this question - why now?  Ben's has been an icon downtown for literally decades - and yes there is a presence at the Nat's stadium too - but was there a specfic driver of expansion or was it more of a "the time is right" as folks seem to be moving to more casual type places (particularly in VA)?

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Welcome Nizam.  Your family and Ben's have been part of Washington as it has evolved from a fairly sleepy small city to a "bustling megalopolis".  What do you miss about the old days and what do you think is the best thing that has happened to/in DC since Ben's opened?  Also what is your impression of how Washington's reputation as a Food town has grown and Ben's role in that?

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It's a small world Don and I shall also start, like you, with.....

Several years ago..........I enter my home to find my wife with some friends, some little group meet. I knew them all, except one and the intro started with " her family owns a restaurant in DC". Because of her obvious Indian features I presumed an Indian restaurant and asked which one, " Ben's Chilli Bowl, do you know it ?". Do I know it, holy shit, it's an institution, a DC landmark and I have the owner's wife in my home! what an honour, THAT sir, was my introduction to Jyotika. (Nizam if you are curious, the common friend is Mona Katyal and her friend).

Welcome Nizam, though I must confess that in spite of so many 'notes to self' I have still to visit Ben's, something I plan to rectify soon as you open in Arlington.

Are you planning to expand the menu or keep it pretty much the same? Wishing you continued sucess.

Regards

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Welcome, Nizam!   Would love to hear more about the vision for the future that you and  your brothers have.  Ben's has been the soul of our community (I moved here in 1988) for decades.  It is impossible to recreate those community roots quickly in new spots. 

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Hello Nizam! What are the challenges and opportunities of the gentrification of the U street area, both from your perspective as a business owner and as someone who knows about DC history? We lived on 14th and N about 7 years ago, and we would never have envisioned the explosion of restaurants, high-end rentals and retail that populate the area now.

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Hello Nizam,

Echoing dcandohio's question above, I am wondering how you have experienced the recent renaissance in the U-Street and 14th Street area. Has the growth in the number of new restaurants affected Ben's positively or negatively?

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And to piggy back off of this question - why now?  Ben's has been an icon downtown for literally decades - and yes there is a presence at the Nat's stadium too - but was there a specfic driver of expansion or was it more of a "the time is right" as folks seem to be moving to more casual type places (particularly in VA)?

Welcome, Nizam, and thanks for chatting!  I'm interested in the above question and also wonder if the expansion plans include moving outside the DelMarVa area sometime in the future. I live on the West Coast now and love seeing familiar restaurants from the DC area pop up.  For example, it's both odd and wonderful to see Five Guys in California.

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Everyone, please welcome Nizam, and feel free to chat about everything from the 1968 riots, to Bill Cosby and Barrack Obama, to the 2014 openings. Here's the Wikipedia entry for Ben's Chili Bowl & Ben's Next Door

Hey Don and good morning everyone!  Don, I can't thank you enough for inviting me to chat today and all week.  I am really excited about it and am happy to chat away.

And thanks to all of you, the members for your interest and love and support of Ben's all of these years.  We wouldn't have made it this long without you!

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Great choice.  Terrific long term DC institution and interesting to see them first expand into the sports venues and now open new retail locations.   Good luck to the family with the expansion(s) and I look forward to seeing what he has to say.

...and btw:   terrific story about your mom and a former student.   It must have made you feel terrific.  That is an beautiful testimonial.  I invited a former teacher to my wedding.  They can be so inspirational!!!

Hi Daveo.  Thanks for the kind words and the well wishes.  My wife Jyotika speaks of Don's mother often.  She had a real impact on Jyotika and was a wonderful influence in her life.  The power of exceptional teachers.

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Me too. Welcome Nazim!

This question may be obvious, but I'll ask anyway - Ben's on U street is an iconic location - as Ben's moves to VA and on to H street, are there elements of the original location that you hope to replicate in the new locations?

Hey Keithstg,

Nice to meet you and no question is too obvious!  Its interesting because its been a little challenging of what elements to bring over.  How do we recreate the look of a 100+ year old building and 55 year old business.  55 year old booths, stools, counter?  Do we bring over our crazy bright florescent lights that are in the front section of Ben's or something a little nicer?  All subjects of family debates.  We always want to have a counter with stools for guests to sit and eat where they can see the "action" and the food being prepared behind the counter that look for that in future BCB's.

We have a furniture meeting today at 3pm.  I am pushing for the staying with the formica with the boomerang tops!

But honestly there are many serious discussions like the music for example.  So as you know our jukebox and the music is a huge part of Ben's.  But very rarely these days do people put money in the jukebox to play songs.  Everyday we put money in (which gets split with the jukebox company) just to keep the music flowing.  Do we add a jukebox to new locations?  And though one answer is "of course!" its hard to keep CD jukeboxes current.  And internet jukeboxes that update themselves are way too flashy for us.  Plus its gives too much of a range of music I think.

Believe me we are trying hard to get the next upcoming locations right.  And we are open to suggestions by all.

Thanks for your question!

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Nizam,

Thanks for doing this chat.  I can't wait to see your responses to all the questions.  As I live sorta near the Rosslyn location, I am very interested in the questions asked above regarding the menu.  I grew up in a small town eating at small little places with counters and Formica booths, long live swivel stools and counters!

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Hi Nizam, and welcome!!

First, I wanted to thank you for having vegetarian chili at Bens--it's cheesy but it makes me, as a vegetarian, feel more welcomed.

Second--i was wondering, because Ben's has been around such a a very long time--in the 15 years i've been in the DC area the area around 14th/U has changed dramatically. have those changes impacted Ben's, and its menu, in any way, and if so, how? thank you for doing this chat!

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And to piggy back off of this question - why now?  Ben's has been an icon downtown for literally decades - and yes there is a presence at the Nat's stadium too - but was there a specfic driver of expansion or was it more of a "the time is right" as folks seem to be moving to more casual type places (particularly in VA)?

Thanks for your question Rovers2000, and its a good one.  It really feels as though the time is right. Before Dad passed in 2009, he gave us his blessing to expand.  Wow, I just thought of it, it was 4 years today that he passed.

Also, my oldest brother Sage and his wife returned from California after being there over 25 years to come back and take care of mom, and to jump back into the business.  So now we have more help to maintain the original Ben's Chili Bowl, Next Door, and the stadiums and have more support to push forward.

But as a family business and one with this history and legacy, its much more important to get it right and expand slowly then to open more stores for money.  So thats why it has taken this long.  Its kind of a fluke that we are working on 3 places at the same time.  It just happened that way.  So wish us luck!  We are doing our best to get it right.  

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Nizam,

Thank you again for being here - I'm going to lob you something other than a softball. :)

I'm not sure how to correctly word this question, so please forgive me if it comes across as clumsy.

It's fascinating to me that your father - I *think* - is of Indian ethnicity, having grown up in Trinidad; yet, Ben's, perhaps more than any other DC restaurant with the possible exception of Florida Avenue Grill, is strongly tied to the Black American community, and there's no dancing around the issue that there's a certain "blackness" to its reputation. Even the hiring of Rock Harper as the opening chef of Next Door stayed true to this. How and why, exactly, did this connection come about? I almost don't want to ask this question because it touches on sensitive issues, but it's something that has always intrigued me, and I've never asked before (I guess I could send you an email, but that wouldn't be any fun).

I don't think of you as black, or white, or Indian or Trinidadian; I just think of you as ... a guy who's a friend of mine. But then again, this is 2013; not 1968. If you don't want to answer this, believe me, I understand, and if anyone takes offense to this, I apologize - I'm asking entirely in a historical context.

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thanks for doing this Nizam.... and thanks for coming to Rosslyn.  I used to frequent Ben's quite a bit when I lived near Logan Circle.... but then we moved to Rosslyn over 3 years ago and hence my habit went by the wayside.  And now you're going to be coming within walking distance again!  From a business perspective, how did you decide on an Arlington location, and specifically on the selected storefront?  Are you looking for a similar late night crowd as on U Street?

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Welcome Nizam.  Your family and Ben's have been part of Washington as it has evolved from a fairly sleepy small city to a "bustling megalopolis".  What do you miss about the old days and what do you think is the best thing that has happened to/in DC since Ben's opened?  Also what is your impression of how Washington's reputation as a Food town has grown and Ben's role in that?

Hi FunnyJohn.  Man I miss the old days!  I am one of those nostalgic people and I, like many people have such vivid memories of back in the day.  The ones that come to mind the most was when DC was off the hook.  I worked the night shift during the summers back in the mid 80's when I was in my middle teens and the night shift customers back then were filled with hustlers, prostitutes and junkies.  I remember taking the orders of people that would place their order, then nod off, while standing up. Others that ordered and then picked their faces while looking in the mirror until their food was ready. Both from the horrible effects of drug abuse.  People having sex in the alley behind the dumpster and others standing up still in the alley with a needle still stuck in their arm.  The DC Control Board, being the murder capital of the world, and a very different U St.

Within Ben's I miss the regulars that frequented Ben's from early on up until their passing away.  Those regulars that were more extended family members than customers.  They helped raise me and show me the ropes.  I miss their conversations which sounded like fights as they discussed our professional sports teams, our mayor or national issues.  I miss the personalities and the characters that were so prevalent around U St.  And I miss those long-time residents that were forced out by all of the growth as their home real estate taxes skyrocketed.

As far as the best thing that has happened in DC since Ben's opened? I am stumped.  So much has happened and I don't think I can pick just one.

But YES, DC is now a foodie town.  We are known nationally as such and that is great.  The new reputation greatly helps our tourism and brings people from around the county to DC for a different reason.  More people visiting DC helps our local businesses and our local economy and I am glad that tourism in general has been growing.

As for Ben's role in that, I am just happy we are holding down DC's signature dish and that we build on DC's foodie reputation by offering a taste and glimpse of classic DC.  I think we have helped the half smoke become a speciality and sought after item and it's interesting seeing it pop up on fancy restaurant menus around the rejoin.  I even saw the half smoke with a shout out to Ben's in a restaurant in Jacksonville, FL.

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Just a few comments from a long-time Washingtonian. I didn't know U Street during its Golden Age, nor, indeed, until well after 1968. I remember the area in the mid- to late-1970s, and recall doing some drug deals (as a buyer) at 12th and U back in those days. Not something I'm particularly proud of, but not ashamed either. It was another time and I was another person. And Washington was, of course, another city. I doubt that the drug scene in that area was the worst of the area's problems. Looking at some of the parts of Washington now and thinking about how they were then, I think anyone of my generation would say that U Street and 14th Street are nicer now, I mean wow, a lot nicer, but maybe something has been lost as well. I'm sure you, Nizam, have a much clearer picture of this than I have, since I never lived or worked on U Street. Is there anything about the nitty-gritty nature of the old U Street that you lament the loss of?

One other thing. The notion that Washington was a "sleepy, small city" when Ben's was new is problematic to me. This is a trope, or a meme they call it nowadays, I encounter fairly often, and I don't think it's an accurate reflection of reality. Washington today is certainly a far more cosmopolitan place than it was in the 1950s, but so is Philadelphia, so is Boston. The fact remains that in the 1950, 1960, and 1970 censuses, Washington was the ninth largest city in the United States. It's now the 24th largest. If you look at photographs of Washington as early as the 1920s, it looks like a pretty bustling, pretty big city, and of course it exploded during the New Deal and Second World War. In the 1970 census, Washington DC had a larger population than New Hampshire, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Delaware, Nevada, Vermont, Wyoming, and Alaska. In the 2010 census, Washington DC had a larger population than Wyoming. Make of this what you will.

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ETA - Care to comment on this article?

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It's a small world Don and I shall also start, like you, with.....

Several years ago..........I enter my home to find my wife with some friends, some little group meet. I knew them all, except one and the intro started with " her family owns a restaurant in DC". Because of her obvious Indian features I presumed an Indian restaurant and asked which one, " Ben's Chilli Bowl, do you know it ?". Do I know it, holy shit, it's an institution, a DC landmark and I have the owner's wife in my home! what an honour, THAT sir, was my introduction to Jyotika. (Nizam if you are curious, the common friend is Mona Katyal and her friend).

Welcome Nizam, though I must confess that in spite of so many 'notes to self' I have still to visit Ben's, something I plan to rectify soon as you open in Arlington.

Are you planning to expand the menu or keep it pretty much the same? Wishing you continued sucess.

Regards

Hi bbhasin, GREAT story about meeting Jyotika!  Thanks for sharing.  She is my rock and I love her deeply.  And so impressive she is.  I am proud to say that I married up! Hope you enjoyed her company.  And a quick cute story for you, I first saw Jyotika for the first time at a great hole in the wall bar and music venue called State of The Union one block up from Ben's.  And my mom and dad first met each other when she was working as a teller at Industrial Bank at 11th and U ST back in the mid 50's.  So these 2 great marriages in our family first started on U St both a block away from Ben's Chili Bowl.

So about you coming to Ben's....We look forward to seeing you in Arlington but you HAVE to come visit us on U street and see the original.  Its really a wonderful old place and to really get it you have to step foot in it at least once.  But don't feel bad, literally everyday I am greeting customers in Ben's and someone says "I have lived in DC or MD for 30 years and I pass by here all the time but this is my first time in."

So let me know when you are coming!  And thanks for the kind words and well wishes.

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Welcome, Nizam!  Can you tell us more about the Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation and its purpose/goals?  Best wishes during these exciting times.

Hi Bettyjoan, nice to meet you and thanks for asking about our Foundation.  In fact I wasn't able to chat yesterday because we did our first foundation launch event with a fundraising luncheon at the Chili Bowl.  It was amazing that through pledges by corporations, board members, individual friends, and pledges from Ben's Chili Bowl and Ben's Next Door we raised over $40,000!

So Mom and Dad have been donating through Ben's and personally since they first opened 55 years ago.  And they have instilled in us that need to continue to give as much as we can for as long as we can.  In tribute to the legacy of what mom and dad have done, we started the Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation to continue the good that they have done.

Our mission statement is "Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation is committed to positively impacting its community by giving back to the neighborhoods where we live and work."

Some of the groups that Ben's Chili Bowl has donated to regularly over the years are:  Teaching for Change, For the Love of Children, Hope and a Home, Emmaus Center for the Aging, Mary's Center, The Barker Foundation, Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute, Siblings Together, & Coach Nickelberry's Summer Basket Camp @ Howard University.  We hope to greatly increase our giving in the future with our Foundation.

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Hi Bettyjoan, nice to meet you and thanks for asking about our Foundation.  In fact I wasn't able to chat yesterday because we did our first foundation launch event with a fundraising luncheon at the Chili Bowl.  It was amazing that through pledges by corporations, board members, individual friends, and pledges from Ben's Chili Bowl and Ben's Next Door we raised over $40,000!

So Mom and Dad have been donating through Ben's and personally since they first opened 55 years ago.  And they have instilled in us that need to continue to give as much as we can for as long as we can.  In tribute to the legacy of what mom and dad have done, we started the Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation to continue the good that they have done.

Our mission statement is "Ben's Chili Bowl Foundation is committed to positively impacting its community by giving back to the neighborhoods where we live and work."

Some of the groups that Ben's Chili Bowl has donated to regularly over the years are:  Teaching for Change, For the Love of Children, Hope and a Home, Emmaus Center for the Aging, Mary's Center, The Barker Foundation, Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute, Siblings Together, & Coach Nickelberry's Summer Basket Camp @ Howard University.  We hope to greatly increase our giving in the future with our Foundation.

Nizam, thank you for everything.

[All, I've been stressing to Nizam that there's no rush to get through this chat, and it's more important for him to take his time and enjoy it, rather than cramming everything in to finish by Friday. So, we're going to keep this open into next week - feel free to engage, or just enjoy the ride.]

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Welcome, Nizam!   Would love to hear more about the vision for the future that you and  your brothers have.  Ben's has been the soul of our community (I moved here in 1988) for decades.  It is impossible to recreate those community roots quickly in new spots. 

Hi Marketfan.  Great question.  I think our vision for the future is to "spread the love" so to speak.  We have so much love for our community and the community has so much love for us that it just seems right to want to spread it.  To go into other communities in hopes of building that gathering spot there where all people can come together and eat good food, meet one another, create good memories, share stories and gain understanding of one another.   To create happy, and fun places where good people can bring friends and family and enjoy one another over a half smoke or bowl of chili.  And to spread the message of the importance of family and hard work and perseverance, and history.  And you are right that it might be very difficult to do so quickly, but we are game to try.  And we hope to be around for a while so if it takes a bit longer to get there thats ok too.

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To Everyone that has followed this chat, asked great questions and wished the family and I well, I just wanted to say a sincere thanks.  Its been a lot of fun.  So much so that thanks to Don, I'll keep chatting into next week and I really hope to answer all of your questions.  Feel free to keep them coming.

I also wanted to do something special for you.  As part of our growth a couple years ago we started an online store.  So we can ship all of our Ben's t-shirts, hats, and all other merchandise, as well as our half smokes, chili's and even Next Door's She Crab Soup and Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes to any address in the USA.  So for you, the members of donrockwell.com only, we have set up the coupon code:  DONROCKS which will give you 20% everything on the site. The shipping has been great, especially for former residents that have moved far away and still want their Ben's, or for gifts for family and friends outside of DC.  So please check out the store at www.benschilibowl.com/store and if something catches your eye, put that coupon code to good use.  It will be valid until the end of the day on Monday.  And just for your knowledge, we do all of the packing for our shipping in our gift shop on the second floor above Next Door.  Its open from 10am-8pm daily if you want to pop in.

Thanks again everyone for being so kind and I look forward to keeping the chat going!

Nizam

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To Everyone that has followed this chat, asked great questions and wished the family and I well, I just wanted to say a sincere thanks.  Its been a lot of fun.  So much so that thanks to Don, I'll keep chatting into next week and I really hope to answer all of your questions.  Feel free to keep them coming.

I also wanted to do something special for you.  As part of our growth a couple years ago we started an online store.  So we can ship all of our Ben's t-shirts, hats, and all other merchandise, as well as our half smokes, chili's and even Next Door's She Crab Soup and Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes to any address in the USA.  So for you, the members of donrockwell.com only, we have set up the coupon code:  DONROCKS which will give you 20% everything on the site. The shipping has been great, especially for former residents that have moved far away and still want their Ben's, or for gifts for family and friends outside of DC.  So please check out the store at www.benschilibowl.com/store and if something catches your eye, put that coupon code to good use.  It will be valid until the end of the day on Monday.  And just for your knowledge, we do all of the packing for our shipping in our gift shop on the second floor above Next Door.  Its open from 10am-8pm daily if you want to pop in.

Thanks again everyone for being so kind and I look forward to keeping the chat going!

Nizam

[i just want to mention that this is something Nizam thought of, impromptu, as a genuine thanks to our members, and I was all for it (he ran the idea by me first). There's no cut in this for me, so the savings passes entirely from Ben's to you. Here is the link to the online store. The holidays are coming soon - shop and enjoy! Cheers, Rocks]

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Late to the party here and without a question to add to the many great ones above.  Just want to say thanks, Nizam.

- Thanks for chatting with us here. Given how many balls you have airborne, so appreciate you making the time.

- Thanks for the generous offer on your website. I'll be taking advantage of it to be sure!

- Thanks especially for the foundation and giving that you do; having been to Ben's many times on U and in Nats Park, I never knew.

- And, perhaps most of all, thanks to you and your family for being such a stabilizing and central force in what has made DC DC over so many years.

The future is bright. Very best to you as you grow and expand!

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Hello Nizam! What are the challenges and opportunities of the gentrification of the U street area, both from your perspective as a business owner and as someone who knows about DC history? We lived on 14th and N about 7 years ago, and we would never have envisioned the explosion of restaurants, high-end rentals and retail that populate the area now.

Hey dcandohio.  Thanks for the great question.  An example I give all the time when talking to people about the changes in the neighborhood is that I would have bet everything I had about 10-15 years ago that a Starbucks would not open within 4 blocks of Ben's...EVER!  And I would have lost everything on that bet.  Would never have thought there would be one right across the street and another a few blocks away.  So even being in this neighborhood for so long I was way way off.

The challenges were the many years of raising property values subsequent real estate taxes that went up so dramatically that fixed income seniors were forced from their homes.  They were out friends not to mention our neighbors, long time customers and supporters.  Then there was the 10+ year period that in anticipation of the metro coming (years before the first hole was dug) that developers bought up much of the property and sat on it for over a decade to reap the benefits of the coming gentrification.  Other challenges are the folks that buy a 1/2 million condo facing the alley behind Ben's and then complain about the noise or the trash.  We do our best but this is an alley in the middle of a commercial district in the heart of the city.  Quiet and squeaky clean it is not.

The positives are that U ST is on and popping as some put it.  That U ST is immensely popular and is again the place to go.  What was a drug-infested and crime ridden street now boasts incredible theaters, live music venues and restaurants again.  And we have new construction, new neighbors, a new clientele.  Just wasn't what we were used to but I think we adapted well to the change.

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Hey dcandohio.  Thanks for the great question.  An example I give all the time when talking to people about the changes in the neighborhood is that I would have bet everything I had about 10-15 years ago that a Starbucks would not open within 4 blocks of Ben's...EVER!  And I would have lost everything on that bet.  Would never have thought there would be one right across the street and another a few blocks away.  So even being in this neighborhood for so long I was way way off.

The challenges were the many years of raising property values subsequent real estate taxes that went up so dramatically that fixed income seniors were forced from their homes.  They were out friends not to mention our neighbors, long time customers and supporters.  Then there was the 10+ year period that in anticipation of the metro coming (years before the first hole was dug) that developers bought up much of the property and sat on it for over a decade to reap the benefits of the coming gentrification.  Other challenges are the folks that buy a 1/2 million condo facing the alley behind Ben's and then complain about the noise or the trash.  We do our best but this is an alley in the middle of a commercial district in the heart of the city.  Quiet and squeaky clean it is not.

The positives are that U ST is on and popping as some put it.  That U ST is immensely popular and is again the place to go.  What was a drug-infested and crime ridden street now boasts incredible theaters, live music venues and restaurants again.  And we have new construction, new neighbors, a new clientele.  Just wasn't what we were used to but I think we adapted well to the change.

Cheers to you guys for adapting.   Incredible changes.

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Hello Nizam,

Echoing dcandohio's question above, I am wondering how you have experienced the recent renaissance in the U-Street and 14th Street area. Has the growth in the number of new restaurants affected Ben's positively or negatively?

Hey LauraB.  I would say that the growth overall has been great for this area, other neighboring businesses and for Ben's.  New restaurants and bars opening helped to keep the buzz and excitement of U St going.  The very recent surge of restaurants all along 14th St that is happening now however is starting to take its toll.  There literally are like 20+ new restaurants opening along 14th ST as I am sure Don and you are all keenly aware.   And though very individual, many are excellent with great interiors and restaurant groups backing them.  We are starting to feel like the small guy on the block!  So Next Door has been down a bit.  The Bowl has been down as well with the shutdown and the lack of tourists coming to DC.  We are part of Destination DC's "DC is Open" campaign to let tourists know that aside from the Fed and the National Parks that DC is open for business.  So it remains to be seen what the huge influx of new restaurants will do but its a little concerning that we can all do well with so so many opening so close together.

Thanks for your question Laura.

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Welcome! It's hard enough to run a restaurant. What's it like to run a restaurant that is also a national institution?

Hey JPW.  Its funny because we don't think of Ben's like that.  This is our place of work and our family business but its hard day to day to think of the importance of Ben's or its significance when the fryer goes down, or the walk-in breaks down.  And in the restaurant business these seem like daily events!  There are always things that pull you day to day and emergencies to take care of.  You are so right that the restaurant business is a hard one.

But I do think that because many think of us as such, and that the wonderful term of institution has been attached to Ben's that we have a huge responsibility.  "For those whom much is given, much is expected" JFK said.  So we have a responsibility to act as ambassadors for our city and always represent DC well to those who visit us from elsewhere in our country and abroad.  We have a responsibility to greet and meet as many people that come in the door as we can.  To give them the unique experience, service and food that they have heard about and traveled so far to get.  Basically to live up to the high expectations that people have of us before they walk through our door.  It can be hard to live up to the hype sometimes.  Its like going to see a movie that your heard was the best movie ever and you are so excited to see it. And the movie was really good but didn't quite meet your very high expectations.  That can be hard but for the most part I think we meet visitors high expectations.

Finally I think we have a responsibility to lead by example.  Like when we switched BCB and Next Door over to 100% wind power about 6 years ago.  Was just the right thing to do and we wanted to send a message that if our dinosaur 50 year old business can do it, any other businesses can do it too.  We also make Ben's available to schools, research projects, filmmakers big and small.  So we have to duty to let the people have access to us and to Ben's because its the people that have supported us for 55 years.

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[Nizam, there are some tricky pitches coming your way, so don't think this will all be a game of softball, where we're lobbing you waist-high pitches that you can whack 300 feet - I want people to really, really get to know the history of Ben's as it relates to Black America, the tough problems of opening and maintaining Next Door, your take of racial issues in America, and what you think your mom and dad would want from their children. So yes, do continue to answer a question a day, but understand that there are tougher questions coming your way. And *thank you* for everything you've done here so far. I think you're awesome, and I think Ben's, as an institution, is awesome - arguably the most important restaurant in Washington, DC - but I'm not letting you off the hook this easy!]

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Nizam,

Thanks for doing this chat.  I can't wait to see your responses to all the questions.  As I live sorta near the Rosslyn location, I am very interested in the questions asked above regarding the menu.  I grew up in a small town eating at small little places with counters and Formica booths, long live swivel stools and counters!

Hi ktmoomau.  I love the small homey places too.  Our architect was pushing for silestone counters but I am pushing back for formica!  Its worked in The Bowl for all these years and its very true to us.  And yes, the Rosslyn menu should pretty much mirror the U ST menu.  The breakfast options may vary a bit.  Thx.

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Hi Nizam, and welcome!!

First, I wanted to thank you for having vegetarian chili at Bens--it's cheesy but it makes me, as a vegetarian, feel more welcomed.

Second--i was wondering, because Ben's has been around such a a very long time--in the 15 years i've been in the DC area the area around 14th/U has changed dramatically. have those changes impacted Ben's, and its menu, in any way, and if so, how? thank you for doing this chat!

Hello Sandynva,

I am so glad that as a vegetarian you feel welcome at Ben's!  We added our veggie chili a long time ago.  You may remember more than I do when that was added.  I can't tell you how many people that frequent shows at the 9:30 Club stop at Ben's before or after their show to get veggie chili fries and a milkshake!

Since then we added Boca burgers and about a year ago added a veggie dog.  We've always wanted to have healthier options and were happy to add them but the veggie dog was a unique story.  This addition to the menu was really driven but our customers.  We kept getting more and more requests for a veggie dog so we sampled a bunch and added the best tasting one to the menu.  Its been pretty popular since we started selling it.  And most recently, we added a rice bowl and salad bowl to our menu.  The base is either fresh salad greens or rice, then topped with your choice of our chili con carne or veggie chili, shredded cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, onions, and sour cream if you like.  Hate to admit it but I am stuck on the rice bowl!  I add jalapeí±os and I love it.

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Hi Nizam,

Thanks for chatting with us.  I'm a nearby neighbor of Ben's new H Street location and I'm excited that you've decided to join our neighborhood.

Can you share briefly with us about the construction going on site?  I was under the impression that you were just making modest adjustments to the existing building and that its historic faí§ade was being maintained, but I see now that it's been almost entirely razed.  What will the new building look like?

And what can you share about your plans to be good neighbors here?  I noticed your comment about new neighbors to the original Ben's above and note that on H Street, you'll be the new neighbor and the store you are replacing is not one that previously generated much noise or trash (it was a men's clothing store), so while your presence seems very likely to be much welcomed by the vast majority of us, it will likely present a different experience for at least your closest neighbors.

Thanks for chatting with us here and looking forward to having you up and running in our neighborhood soon.

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[All, Nizam is dead set on answering every single question asked here; he's just extremely busy. So if it's okay with everyone, I'd like everyone to get their questions in by the end of today, and then Nizam will answer them over the coming days (or weeks) at his leisure - I don't want him to feel rushed. He has been *great* so far (feel free to chime in and thank him here!).]

Nizam, here's one final question from me: What are you most proud of at Next Door? If I was to go there (and I haven't been there since a few weeks after it opened!), what should I order? Where do you see Next Door going in the future? Everyone talks about Ben's, of course, but I suspect you are trying to make a go of Next Door, and here's your stage - the microphone is in your hands.

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Welcome, Nizam, and thanks for chatting!  I'm interested in the above question and also wonder if the expansion plans include moving outside the DelMarVa area sometime in the future. I live on the West Coast now and love seeing familiar restaurants from the DC area pop up.  For example, it's both odd and wonderful to see Five Guys in California.

Hi Sundae in the Park!  Please forgiving me for missing you earlier.  Was trying to take the questions in order and somehow inadvertently skipped your great question.  We are working on expanding and yes you may see a Ben's outside of the DelMarVa area one day but our plan is to expand from our base here and DC and spread out from here.  So if all goes well, regionally before nationally.  Its just much safer to branch out from where you are the strongest and have a super strong and supportive base.  Plus its much easier logistically to get our specialty half smokes to stores in the area than out to the Midwest or West Coast. But one day hopefully!

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Thanks again everyone for the great questions.  Wanted to let you know that Ben's Chili Bowl (actually my older brother Kamal and my Mom) will be on the Steve Harvey Show tomorrow (Tuesday) at 2pm EST competing against another famous and historic chili restaurant in a segment they call Food Fight.  I was holding the fort at the Chili Bowl and didn't make it to Chicago for the taping of the show last week so I can't wait to watch it tomorrow (though I already know who wins!).  We promised Steve that we wouldn't tell so you have to watch tomorrow if you want to know who wins the battle for best chili in the country. 

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Nizam:

Ben's Next Door is a very different operation than Ben's Chili Bowl.  Can you describe the challenges and what you learned in opening and operating this restaurant/bar.

Hi daveo,

Thanks for the great question and for following this chat.  WOW have I learned a lot!  Hate to say BND sounded great at the time.  Actually its not that bad.  So long story short, I am very glad we did it.  Personally, my brother Kamal and I inherited BCB and literally grew up in the business as you know.  BND was the logical thing to do next to BCB.  We knew we needed to try hard to purchase that building for the longevity of BCB and gladly we did.  BND was our intention to be a perfect complement to BCB and I think we succeeded.  So all the things that we can't do at The Bowl, we are able to do at Next Door like offer salads, fish and seafood, brunch, alcohol, live music, receptions and holiday parties, watch parties, etc. But with that came a hell of a learning curve.  Having never run a bar before we now had a 53 foot bar, and 120 seats, and hosts, food runners, a chef, kitchen printers, fresh seafood and steaks, a full kitchen staff, bartenders, linen, and you name it.  Its a very different animal operationally from the Chili Bowl.  And the margins are different too.  Lots less profit in a business like Next Door, and more employees than BCB despite the 3rd shift (breakfast) that The Bowl has.  As business has dropped off with the influx of new and great restaurants all along 14th St, its been a challenge to cut costs and maintain a good profit as sales have decreased a bit.  So many many challenges and lessons learned.

The big plus is that we proved to ourselves that we could do it, and we are proud of it.  The food is much better than I ever expected and best of all, the community loves and appreciates it.  Come give it a try if you haven't yet.  I think you'll enjoy it.

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Thanks for that response Nizam.  I've been to BCB and to BNB.  I've enjoyed both of them.  By the way that is one long killer looking bar.  I hope you're able to fill it up with customers.   :D   I was surprised to see how large BNB is with its depth and back rooms.  There is a lot of capacity in that restaurant. Two different worlds.  LOL.

 From my perspective, having leased retail in the past, having leased restaurant spaces way back and aware of so many operations, it was interesting to hear from an established operator how the huge growth of 14th street restaurants and bars has somewhat impacted BNB.  It will, I'm sure, force you guys to be on your business toes.  The whole area has undergone this astounding change.  Good luck.  Hopefully for all the operators the growth of residential in the future outpaces the growth of retail spaces.

Best of luck.

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Nizam,

Thank you again for being here - I'm going to lob you something other than a softball. :)

I'm not sure how to correctly word this question, so please forgive me if it comes across as clumsy.

It's fascinating to me that your father - I *think* - is of Indian ethnicity, having grown up in Trinidad; yet, Ben's, perhaps more than any other DC restaurant with the possible exception of Florida Avenue Grill, is strongly tied to the Black American community, and there's no dancing around the issue that there's a certain "blackness" to its reputation. Even the hiring of Rock Harper as the opening chef of Next Door stayed true to this. How and why, exactly, did this connection come about? I almost don't want to ask this question because it touches on sensitive issues, but it's something that has always intrigued me, and I've never asked before (I guess I could send you an email, but that wouldn't be any fun).

I don't think of you as black, or white, or Indian or Trinidadian; I just think of you as ... a guy who's a friend of mine. But then again, this is 2013; not 1968. If you don't want to answer this, believe me, I understand, and if anyone takes offense to this, I apologize - I'm asking entirely in a historical context.

Hey Buddy,

Leave it to you to ask me a tough one.  Actually its fine to ask and I am happy to share as it does come up. So dad was born in Trinidad and he was 82 years old when he passed in 2009.  His parents were from India but all dad knew was Trinidad until coming to the U.S. to attend university when he was 18.  That was in 1945.  Mom was born on a farm in Virginia off of RT 17 about 15 miles northeast of Tappahannock, VA.  Her dad was Native American and her mom was Black.  They met in the mid 50's at the Industrial Bank at 11th and U (which is still there by the way) where mom worked as a teller.

At that time in our country (and forgive me if I over simplify this) you were either black or white. There was no mixed, bi-racial or "other" category in the US. The majority either let you in as white or denied you classifying you as black.  Your skin was white or was of a darker shade which automatically made you black.  You could either walk into a fancy restaurant in downtown DC or a downtown theater to see a show or you couldn't.  You were either black or white.  We were black.

Dad and mom opened up Ben's on U ST, "Black Broadway" in the heart of an exceptional black community in DC.  It was a prideful and complete community amidst the fight for equal rights, human rights, voting rights, educational and economic equality and opportunity and social justice.  Mom and dad lived in the black community, worked and started a business in the black community and had the rights of black people in the eyes of the majority and the law.  I don't even want to get into the number of times my dad was pulled over by the police and the separate times he was pulled over with my mom because mom is very fair-skinned.

As for my brothers and I? We were all born in DC and all worked at the Bowl on U ST, growing up in that area which was then comprised of violent crime, drugs, and prostitution.  When our parents moved we were blessed to grow up in a nice home and neighborhood in upper northwest DC, and attended independent schools in DC but we still had the balance of working at Ben's.  It really shaped our lives.  So we grew up as black in DC.  Now did we have the typical black experience and was our life as hard as many blacks in the city? No.  All I am saying is that we identify ourselves as black and that experience in DC is what we know.  Of course this is not the black experience in the rest of the country or the world, but it was and is our experience.  The sign in Ben's which I think is still there as we recently updated our menu boards reads, "Black owned and operated since 1958."  This is a source of pride for us. There are fewer and fewer black owned businesses in our city and our country.  And we have made it, and as a family working together.  Mom and dad celebrated 50+ years of marriage and they both got to see Ben's reach 50 years in business.  As the labels and the categories have changed and expanded over the decades, has our experience changed?  I think not.

Today, I do get stuck when I fill out an official form.  I do know that those in the black category need all the help they can get so I often check that box. But saying "I am black" comes across today much differently.  When asked, no one is satisfied until I say Trinidad and then I hear a "OOOhhh."  I hate to say that the last time I went to Carnival I was just a kid.  So much for the Trini's accepting me.

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Hey Buddy,

Leave it to you to ask me a tough one.  Actually its fine to ask and I am happy to share as it does come up. So dad was born in Trinidad and he was 82 years old when he passed in 2009.  His parents were from India but all dad knew was Trinidad until coming to the U.S. to attend university when he was 18.  That was in 1945.  Mom was born on a farm in Virginia off of RT 17 about 15 miles northeast of Tappahannock, VA.  Her dad was Native American and her mom was Black.  They met in the mid 50's at the Industrial Bank at 11th and U (which is still there by the way) where mom worked as a teller.

At that time in our country (and forgive me if I over simplify this) you were either black or white. There was no mixed, bi-racial or "other" category in the US. The majority either let you in as white or denied you classifying you as black.  Your skin was white or was of a darker shade which automatically made you black.  You could either walk into a fancy restaurant in downtown DC or a downtown theater to see a show or you couldn't.  You were either black or white.  We were black.

Dad and mom opened up Ben's on U ST, "Black Broadway" in the heart of an exceptional black community in DC.  It was a prideful and complete community amidst the fight for equal rights, human rights, voting rights, educational and economic equality and opportunity and social justice.  Mom and dad lived in the black community, worked and started a business in the black community and had the rights of black people in the eyes of the majority and the law.  I don't even want to get into the number of times my dad was pulled over by the police and the separate times he was pulled over with my mom because mom is very fair-skinned.

As for my brothers and I? We were all born in DC and all worked at the Bowl on U ST, growing up in that area which was then comprised of violent crime, drugs, and prostitution.  When our parents moved we were blessed to grow up in a nice home and neighborhood in upper northwest DC, and attended independent schools in DC but we still had the balance of working at Ben's.  It really shaped our lives.  So we grew up as black in DC.  Now did we have the typical black experience and was our life as hard as many blacks in the city? No.  All I am saying is that we identify ourselves as black and that experience in DC is what we know.  Of course this is not the black experience in the rest of the country or the world, but it was and is our experience.  The sign in Ben's which I think is still there as we recently updated our menu boards reads, "Black owned and operated since 1958."  This is a source of pride for us. There are fewer and fewer black owned businesses in our city and our country.  And we have made it, and as a family working together.  Mom and dad celebrated 50+ years of marriage and they both got to see Ben's reach 50 years in business.  As the labels and the categories have changed and expanded over the decades, has our experience changed?  I think not.

Today, I do get stuck when I fill out an official form.  I do know that those in the black category need all the help they can get so I often check that box. But saying "I am black" comes across today much differently.  When asked, no one is satisfied until I say Trinidad and then I hear a "OOOhhh."  I hate to say that the last time I went to Carnival I was just a kid.  So much for the Trini's accepting me.

I think this is one of the most important posts in the history of this website.

Thank you again, Nizam.

All, Nizam will be taking the rest of the week to finish up the remaining questions, but please don't ask any more! He's insisting on answering every question, but he's also swamped, and I'm encouraging him to take his time with the rest of these.

This is a great chat, and encourages me to do more in the future.

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