When I first heard that I was going to manage Ben’s Chili Bowl’s website redesign, I was ecstatic. As one of the rare D.C. natives in this city, I’ve known about, and loved, Ben’s since I was a young kid. As I got older, I began to learn about Ben’s historical legacy and the cultural impact it had on the U Street neighborhood and DC as a whole. Whether it be as a pre-jazz club dining spot during the “Black Broadway” days, a safe-haven during the 1968 riots, or a stalwart cornerstone that helped keep a neighborhood alive during the early 80′s, Ben’s is, as Mayor Adrian Fenty once said, “one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia…[it's] the soul of a neighborhood and the pride of our city.”
When we were tasked with modernizing Ben’s website, that legacy was in the forefront of our minds, and during an exploratory trip to the Bowl (that included a few half-smokes and chili fries, for research purposes), we remarked at how visually stimulating the Ben’s Chili Bowl experience is, whether it be the famous mural, the charisma of the building itself, or the overwhelming amount of photographs of famous patrons tacked to the wall, Ben’s is just as much a feast for the eyes as it is the stomach.
ISL was fantastic in that they created a site for us that perfectly captures the classic look and feel of Ben’s, but in a clean, up-to-date and fully functional package. We can now display pictures of each menu item, tell our story in a visual timeline, blog about the latest happenings at Ben’s, and sell our products to everyone in the U.S. in a visually stunning way. Thank you ISL!
When designing the site, ISL designer, Scott Simpson, wanted to “give it a vintage, 50′s diner theme, but incorporate more modern aspects as well. There is a deli-paper style, vintage americana in terms of the signage.” Our goal, in essence, was to capture the character of Ben’s while giving it a 2013 facelift. Scott relates, “It’s such a unique place. I wanted to use a lot of large, full-screen images to get across the feel of being at Ben’s because the only way you can really get that feeling across is to see it and experience it.” Our wireframes reflected that kind of concept well.
For those perfect large, full-screen images, we reached out to Joshua Cogan, an award winning photographer whose work has been featured in the New Yorker, Washington Post, GQ, Travel Channel, and Discovery Channel and whose Masters in Anthropology showed us he understood the importance of capturing the nuances of a culture.
The color choices and typography reflected Ben’s existing scheme and were influenced by old-school vintage diner menus and signage. However, as a nod to modernity, the navigation icons were hand-drawn by iSL designer Mike O’Brien in order to highlight the kitschiness of the restaurant as well. That modernity is also shown in the layout of the page. Scott admits, “The blog and the timeline are my favorite pages because the content floats on top of everything, and it’s an interesting way of laying things out.”
What truly helped modernize the site, though, was the work of our Dev team. ISL developer Megan Zlock describes, “We wanted to make the homepage responsive so that people trying to get to Ben’s (even if they weren’t exactly coherent) could get the information they want, especially the location and hours (even on mobile) without any difficulty.”
The true test for the Antimatter team, though, was the incorporation of the Ben’s Chili Bowl store, one of the most popular features of the site, and a huge source of income for Ben’s. For this part of the project, we worked with UltraCart, and made sure to focus strongly on the user experience, specifically how things would transition from WordPress to UltraCart and back again seamlessly.
The final product is a website that we are incredibly proud of. It was unbelievably exciting to work with such an established piece of DC culture, and we consider it an honor to collaborate with the Alis and the rest of the Ben’s Chili Bowl team.