How One Burger Joint Has Kept Customers Coming Back for 70 YearsWhite Manna is having a moment as diners — and TV show hosts — flock to its sliders in search of a burger that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
What makes a tiny New Jersey diner serving no-gimmicks burgers and fries a notable success? Chalk it up to history and nostalgia — and new owners who knew not to mess with either (but made one key business decision that led to increased profits).
When Ronny Cohen and his brother Bob bought White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1996, it wasn’t love; it was business. The diner had been serving up a simple menu of sliders (mini hamburgers) and French fries for 50 years by then and had become a local institution, but the owner at the time had had enough of it.
“He had begun to neglect the place,” Ronny Cohen explained.
But the Cohens thought twice about giving it a makeover. When they realized how much the local clientele adored White Manna, how integral it was to the town and its connection to the past, they decided the best plan was to embrace it as it was.
“I saw how much people loved the place,” explained Cohen, “and I really grew attached myself.”
Stick with what got you there
Apart from some minor cosmetic adjustments, Cohen left the place largely as he found it. He added a new soda machine, for instance — but even then he decided to keep the old one on display.
He goes to great pains to maintain the same small town aesthetic of the diner, recently spending, by his account, “a lot of time” trying (and failing) to hunt down a window similar to an original that had fallen victim to time.
Focus on what’s successful
When Cohen took over, breakfast played a larger part in the business, but burger sales made up the majority of revenue. So he decided to open later and close later, focusing more on those hours during which people would likely be eating a burger. Revenue jumped.
And he made the burgers the centerpiece of the restaurant, emphasizing fresh ingredients over the bottom line.
The approach has paid dividends. On the surface there’s nothing special about these little circles of meat slapped onto a potato roll with onion and, if you’d like, cheese. Yet they constantly rank among the best burgers in the country. They’ve been featured on TV several times, including on popular shows “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Man v. Food” and “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.”
Cohen said it’s thanks to the quality of the product that this is the case. “The only thing we freeze is the ice cream and the French fries,” he said.
Know who your client is
You can buy a burger just about anywhere. But the people who dine at White Manna want a no-frills burger-eating experience, something that’s becoming rarer these days, when menus emphasize the origins of the burger’s meat and then charge an arm and a leg for the privilege to eat it.
Remain loyal and consistent
As White Manna’s fame grows, Cohen remains committed to his customers, and staying within their budgets. One burger costs $1.35. Adding cheese costs just $.25. Three sliders are more than enough for a meal, and with fries and a drink, the total price is affordable, which guarantees most patrons head home happy — and proves that Cohen’s respect for the past and passion for the present has paid off.