January 10th, 2009
05:37 PM ET
5 years ago

Obama spends his Saturday 'half-smoking'

Obama made a Saturday stop at Ben's Chili Bowl, a local DC institution.
Obama made a Saturday stop at Ben's Chili Bowl, a local DC institution.

WASHINGTON (CNN) –- Obama popped in for lunch Saturday at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the 50-year-old Washington fast food institution famous for its “half-smokes” –- sausages smothered in spicy homemade chili sauce, mustard, and onions.

The visit came as a complete surprise to Sonya Ali, one of the owners of the family-run business.

“Do you think I’d look like this if I knew?” she said, referencing her red blouse and slacks. The Secret Service came in and secured the location. Ali asked them how soon they could expect the president-elect. “Within minutes,” they told her.

And sure enough, he did, with Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in tow.

Security barricaded the U Street block, and hundreds rushed out of restaurants and apartment buildings to catch a glimpse of the incoming president.

Listen: Hear the crowd react and the owner reflect on the visit


Obama posed with diners and staff in all three rooms of the restaurant, before returning to the counter to collect his order: a chili half-smoke and sweet tea. Fenty had cheese fries and water.

There is a sign near the cash register that reads: “Who Eats Free at Ben’s. Bill Cosby. The Obama Family.” For years, the privilege was reserved for Cosby, a frequent patron and friend of the owner’s family.

“I actually changed that sign two days before the election,” Ali said. “I sat up in the office. I said: ‘I am changing the sign because he’s going to win. He’s going to be the president and we’d love to have him in here.’ We heard he liked chili.”

Seeing the sign, the president-elect said he appreciated the gesture, but paid with a $20 bill, telling the counter attendant who asked if he wanted change, "No, we're straight."

The president-elect and mayor took a two-person table, and joked with diners as they ate. Asked about the significance of the visit, Obama simply said: "It means I'm going to get a hot dog."

“It is a very historic moment,” Ali said. “[T]o actually have him here was just wonderful. It just kind of proves that what we felt all along: that he is really a president for the people. He is just a man among men. So it’s an honor.”

This was Obama's first visit to Ben’s.

The president-elect posed for a photo with a group of policemen and Fenty outside the restaurant, and refused to take sides on a question of local loyalties: “I'm a Bulls fan. White Sox fan. Neutral when it come to Maryland and Georgetown."

Saturday’s half-smoke sausage may be just about all the smoking Obama is doing of late. The president-elect has made an effort to quit smoking, although he admitted in recent interviews that he has, on occasion, "fallen off the wagon."


Filed under: President-elect Obama
soundoff (203 Responses)
  1. John Magret

    Hes definitely more of a every day man than previous presidents, unless you happen to be from the south and voted for Bush twice; Then hes your personal nightmare :)

    January 10, 2009 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  2. James Thompson

    This headline is very sensational and misleading; when coupled with the misleading picture (making it look like president elect Obama is holding a cigarette) this is a sleazy ploy. CNN Show some journalistic integrity and avoid tabloid trash.

    January 10, 2009 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  3. Don, NY

    To the owner of the establishment: If he is merely a "man among men," why are you drooling? He is not deserving of his "rock star" status amongst so many uninformed Americans.

    January 10, 2009 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  4. ah

    He needs to stop smoking. It is not healthy for him and those close to him.

    January 10, 2009 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  5. dennis

    isn't it amazing how you americans love some one who has done nothing so far, just like you loved bush eight years ago. will history repeat itself

    January 10, 2009 06:04 pm at 6:04 pm |
  6. sherm

    Love him,
    E-mail me in in two years and tell me how great it is.

    January 10, 2009 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  7. Granforchange

    THIS STORY IS A OUTRAGE.. WHO REALLY CARES ABOUT HIS SO CALLED 'SMOKING" THIS STORY JUST SHOWS HIS DISREGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE IN THE MIDDLE EAST ,THERE ARE PROTESTS OF THOUSANDS OF FOLKS GOING ON TODAY ,WHILE INNOCENT LIVES AND CHILDREN ARE BEING BLOWN AWAY , THIS IS JOURNALISM AT ITS VERY WORST... UPSET GRANFORCHANGE IN MADISON WISCONSIN

    January 10, 2009 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  8. Sue

    I am tired of every referring to him as the president. Last I checked, it wasn't Jan 20th yet. He will be the president but has not offically been sworn it and should be referred to with the proper terminology.

    January 10, 2009 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  9. bk

    As soon as he gets elected he will no longer be approachable. You will also never have a beverage with him. He just needed your vote.

    January 10, 2009 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  10. Change - Yeah Left!

    Oh my goodness, the annointed one ate!

    January 10, 2009 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  11. Pat

    Like Princess Diana was the people's Princess, so will Obama be the people's President. He is so approachable.

    January 10, 2009 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  12. Patrice

    Once again, for the thousandth time, I know why I voted for this man. He is of the people and is not hesitant to be amongst them. Just the thrill and memory of being in a restaurant, a regular place, where the President-elect comes in for an order of chili and sweet tea. This is something that all who are present can tell over and over again to their family and friends and the story will travel through generations. He is having community balls for the regular people of this country in Washington on that grand day. Hearing that he has done this lets me know that he will look out for the regular American. He may rub shoulders with the leaders of this country and the world, yet he has that common touch which will benefit all of us. Alexander Hamilton, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman all possessed that quality that made them mindful of the common folk who truly stand for what this country is about. It may have seemed like a small thing but in the bigger picturewe know that President Obama will always have us on his mind when he seats behind the desk in that Oval Office. All I can say is Thank You, President-elect Obama for not only satisfying your appetite for that chili and sweet tea but for also reminding us that we have made an excellent selection in electing you the 44th President of this great country. May God continue to bless you.

    January 10, 2009 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  13. Trevor

    Nice story about Obama, the down-to-earth President.

    Not sure why it needed to be given a somewhat sensationalist headline, using a play on words to imply that Obama was seen smoking cigarettes. The article even acknowledged that this was the intent, by explaining at the end that he has quit smoking.

    January 10, 2009 06:16 pm at 6:16 pm |
  14. Bev

    Let's see....Russia has cut gas supplies to Europe in the middle of winter. Israel is fighting for its life (and everybody hates this apparently...as evidenced by protests against them trying to defend themselves)...But the liberal news media is fainting in adoration because Obama went into a fast-food place and ...get this...ATE FOOD. Ohhh...can you BELIEVE it???? It ATE FOOD. Please...

    January 10, 2009 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  15. floridian loves Obama

    Aw, what a nice feel good story. Finally CNN! I think that is neat that he can spend time with powerful leaders and traditional working Americans. I know he gets a lot of flack for smoking hence the smoking parallel in the ticker title, but I think it's a personal choice and many people fight nicotine addiction...I bet half of the people who judge him are smokers. I am NOT a smoker and I still don't judge him.

    January 10, 2009 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  16. Spellcheck

    Hey Nick....you spell it "ridiculous."

    January 10, 2009 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  17. Snickers

    Nick, I agree. People need to go to school.
    Perhaps you should repeat your spelling courses.............

    January 10, 2009 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  18. Bev

    All this Obama adoration reminds me of the movie Life of Brian by Monty Python. You people seriously need to stop watching TV and the movies and find out facts about what's going on the world and stop relying on the liberal news media who feed you garbage like this. There are serious issues going on this world and believe it or not...George Bush is not the anti-Christ. What is with this Bush bashing syndrome? It's an illness. What on earth are you people going to do when you can't blame him for everything under the sun? You will go through withdrawal. It's not healthy and it's wrong.

    I feel sorry for Obama. You have put the expectations so high on the post there is absolutely no way he can meet them. It's sad.

    January 10, 2009 06:23 pm at 6:23 pm |
  19. No Hillary = No Obama

    Obama is mimicing Bill Clinton in so many ways. Obama is not an original – he just like to let people think he is.

    January 10, 2009 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  20. strong

    As for The Chosen One - who cares what he eats, and where. If he wants to smoke, who cares. This over-gushing public adoration of Obama is sickening. This is not the American Idol. (.... cnn won't post this, of course).

    January 10, 2009 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  21. Sean

    He figured it would fit in with all those cigarettes he is slowly giving himself lung cancer and other various life threatening illnesses with. And we were all worried about a little treatable skin cancer on McCain! My family and I did vote for Obama, but after recent events and if Burris is seated...we will not make the same mistake of voting for Obama again in 4 years!

    January 10, 2009 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  22. Annie

    Am I missing something? What is with the misleading title?

    January 10, 2009 06:27 pm at 6:27 pm |
  23. Pie

    Hey Freddie, betcha wish u were at Ben's at that time, huh?!

    January 10, 2009 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  24. Gordon, Payson, Az

    Here come the Rethuglicans in 3....2...1....

    (is my comment witty or insightful or both?)

    January 10, 2009 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  25. Democrat

    actually Bush is very approachable...he was in Greensburg, KS to the community that lost their town to a tornado...he was in Arizona...he was in New York...yeah...he's pretty much one of the most approachable presidents ever...

    and he even ate healthy food...as opposed to "half-smokes"

    January 10, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
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