“Mr. Mario, buy my bar,” Walter Judd persisted as he sat in the White Mana Diner -- three decades ago -- sipping his everyday coffee. “Please, please, you’re good with the people, Mr. Mario. Buy the bar.”
But Mario Costa, who owned the White Mana, didn’t want anything to do with Judd’s offer.
“It was an old little bar,” Costa said with a cigar in his left hand, motioning outside to the bar with his right. “Maybe 40 feet long, it was just 20 by 40. It was a little building, a corner bar -- neighborhood bar.”
Yet later one day, Costa suddenly thought, “What do I got to lose?”
Costa, who immigrated from Portugal in 1967, has owned White Mana Diner, Ringside Lounge and Ringside Boxing Gym -- all located between Manhattan and Tonnelle Avenues -- for over 30 years. What once was an attachment for only Costa is now something treasured by locals, visitors and well-known people.
The Portugal native worked his first and only job at the diner while attending East Side High School in Newark and later New Jersey City University -- formerly Jersey City State College -- on Kennedy Boulevard.
Taking 18 credits per semester, Costa would be in the classroom from about 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. At 5 p.m., he’d be behind the grill or serving customers at the diner until 9 p.m.
While he was a student, this routine carried on from Monday to Thursday. Over the weekends, he worked double the hours -- and he loved it.
“I never really wanted to leave for some reason,” Costa said. “I was only going to leave when I was going to law school.”
But he never left.
When Costa graduated college in 1979, Webster Bridges, the original owner of White Mana, was selling the diner. The new graduate used his $32,000 he had saved up for law school to buy the diner, trading in a suit and briefcase for an apron and grill.
About two years later, Judd’s Tavern, a Polish bar just across Routes 1&9, was sold to a Greek man, according to Costa. Later renamed to “Silver Corner,” the new owner refused to serve African Americans nor Spanish people, Costa said.
“If the beer was $1.00 or $1.50, he would charge $3.00,” Costa said.
The bar closed down after two months. While looking for another buyer, Judd began to visit the White Mana.
Judd tried to persuade Costa to take the bar off his hands, but he thought the drinks were talking and didn’t take Judd seriously. Eventually, however, Judd’s persistence paid off.
“One day I ask him, ‘How much do you want for the bar?’” Costa said. “And he says, ‘$15,000,’ and that’s why I bought it.”
Costa would walk across the street from the diner and go in and start remodeling the bar. The first few weeks it was slow, he recalled, but then he remembered how it began to attract more attention from the neighborhood.
He put Tim Broady -- an African American light heavyweight boxer who trained at Ringside Boxing Gym in the early 1980s -- and Mike “Nino” Gonzalez -- a Puerto Rican super welterweight boxer who also trained at the gym -- behind the bar as bartenders, which was something the previous owner never did.
Robert Rooney -- former head coach who was inducted in the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame -- worked alongside the two younger boxers. By doing this, Costa wanted to make a statement to everyone.
“I opened the bar and I tried to tell them people,” Costa said. “Spanish, black, white -- you’re all welcome.”
Within three to four weeks, what was once an unwelcoming, empty space turned into a place where people danced to a little jukebox and it looked like Soul Train -- an early 1970s music-dance show -- according to Costa.
But grilling burgers, welcoming and serving different ethnicities weren’t the only things that Costa did. The longtime Hudson County native also strived -- and continues to strive -- to reach out to the younger generation.
Ringside Boxing Gym, which is at the end of the block of Ringside Lounge, is open to kids for free after school. Kids would grab a couple of cheeseburgers from the diner before hitting the gym, according to Costa, and he thinks training at the gym is good for them.
“I don’t pressure them to fight, I just want them to come to the gym to stay off the streets,” he said. “And if you wanna fight, then you can fight, but I don’t encourage them to fight.”
Little did Costa know, this code is what brought in a future Grammy award-winner and world heavyweight boxing champion -- just two among many other celebrities.
Akon, who attended Dickinson High School, took his first step into the lounge when he and his friends were having a dispute, which Costa told them to “bang it out in the ring.” The ring -- which used to be above the bar -- became the place the rapper and his friends went to settle their differences.
The R&B singer told The Jersey Journal in 2013 that, if it wasn’t for Costa, he would’ve gotten involved in something that would’ve taken him “off course.”
Mike Tyson, who has a love for pigeons, found his way to Costa after a bully had beheaded one of his birds. He threw the first punch of his future career.
To this day, both Akon and Tyson stop by Ringside for some food, drinks and to see Costa. But they’re not the only ones.
Rappers Fabolous and Fetty Wap, as well as professional athletes Lorenzo Mauldin -- of the New York Jets -- and Kenny Britt -- of the New England Patriots -- often touch base at the bar, diner and gym.
Costa -- who originally planned to be a lawyer -- loves waking up, walking from Kennedy Boulevard to Tonnelle Avenue, taking a sip of his morning coffee and starting off his day with the customers.
“I own this block,” Costa said. “I’m staying right here.”