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

Obama spends his Saturday 'half-smoking'

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/10/art.bens1.gi.jpg caption="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. cobra

    All the idiots that run out to see obuma make me want to throw and just seeing him on the boob tube makes me want to throw up again.

    January 10, 2009 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  2. Get a grip, lovers and haters!

    OK,. so this story was not particularly newsworthly - in the legit news world - in light of the chaos around the globe (and the NFL playoffs, ok?)

    But if this were instead a story about the president-elect having half a cigarette, it would ALSO not be news worthy, yet EVERYONE WHO GRIPED ABOUT THIS STORY CLICKED ON IT. The headline was actually not misleading. This story was about a mudane personal event. Anyone who clicked on it could not possibly be dissappointed, unless you've had a relative die from lung cancer. The headline set you up precisley for the pay-off.

    If you wanted a story about foreign policy or the economy, this was obviously not it. So if you clicked and were dissapointed, or felt like it wasted your time, you are the stupid one - not the writer, or the network. Given the headline, this was a human-interest story all the way. And if you clicked on it, then you are responsible for the media running many more stories like it.

    Was this a publicity stunt? Maybe. More probably it was a meeting with the mayor of DC, and the newbie wanted to know where the iconic DC eateries were, and the mayor took him to one. That is a personal touch you normally only get to read in biographies years after it takes place. So perhaps it does shed light on the president-elect. Down-to-earth? Yes. In-touch? Yes. At a cost to the taxpayers and local area (security, etc), yes. News-worthy? We will only find out years from now. In the meantime, your clicks are the only things that make it so.

    January 10, 2009 11:20 pm at 11:20 pm |
  3. The Real Question

    Can you substitute onion rings for the fries?

    January 11, 2009 01:52 am at 1:52 am |
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