Family passes torch after 3 generations

Longtime owners,
patrons speak fondly of Connie

Staff Writer

Family passes torch
after 3 generations
Longtime owners,
patrons speak fondly of Connie’s
Staff Writer

CHRIS KELLY staff Nick and Joan DiBiase in front of Connie’s.CHRIS KELLY staff Nick and Joan DiBiase in front of Connie’s.

With a nod to the past and a toast to the future, the DiBiase family is handing Connie’s Bar and Restaurant in Sayreville over to new ownership.

And after 75 years in the family, it is a bittersweet transition.

The DiBiases have owned and operated Connie’s, at Route 35 and Ernston Road, for three generations.

Sunday evening was a time for old friends and memories, as familiar faces and even some surprise guests showed up to toast Connie’s and the DiBiase family.

"It was an overwhelming experience," said Nick DiBiase, owner of Connie’s with his wife Joan.

Nick and Joan planned the celebration to pass the torch on to the bar’s new owners — Jeff Sonta of Sayreville and Bill and Andrea Sonta of Millstone. Jeff and Bill are brothers, just like Nick’s father, Nick, and his uncle, John, who took over the bar from their parents in the 1940s.

DiBiase noted that Connie’s saw one of the largest crowds in its history during the Sunday celebration — a packed house from 6 p.m. until closing at 2 a.m.

"I saw people that I hadn’t seen since my father owned the place," he said.

The restaurant and bar, built in 1929 by his grandparents Rose and Frank DiBiase, was originally an Italian-American club, said DiBiase.

Rose and Frank moved to Genoa — the name for "the Italian section" of Cliffwood, he explained, and purchased the land on Route 35.

During World War II, when Rose and Frank’s sons, Nick and John, were serving in the war, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control commission forced the restaurant to adopt an official name. The establishment was dubbed "Connie’s" — after Rose and Frank’s daughter Connie, who helped at the bar.

At a time when there was "not much entertainment" in the area, Connie’s brought in an organ player on Sunday nights, which became a popular attraction and soon moved to Saturdays.

"It shifted to become known for its entertainment," DiBiase said.

In the ’60s and ’70s, under the ownership of DiBiase’s father, Nick, and mother, Shirley, country and western music became the focal point at Connie’s. The theme lasted until the late ’80s, when line dancing grew in popularity and Connie’s just didn’t have the space for that.

With a resurgence in the popularity of oldies music in the ’80s, Connie’s picked up a ’50s theme.

"We went back to the ‘Grease’ era, ‘oldies but goodies,’ " DiBiase recalled. With Joan’s design guidance, the bar settled into a doo-wop style, even holding a grand reopening and "new look party" in 1987.

Bands that took the stage at Connie’s during that time included the Duprees, Larry Chance and the Earls, Vito and the Salutations, The Passions, and Shirley Alston Reeves of The Shirelles.

Many of the band members who played at Connie’s through the years surprised DiBiase when they showed up for the last hurrah on Sunday.

As the eldest son of Nick and Shirley, "Little Nick," as Nick DiBiase was called, has vivid memories of growing up around the establishment that would eventually come under his ownership. He recalls standing on a chair, shooting pool with family, and riding around the restaurant on a tricycle.

Nick also spoke of the humorous transition from the original building to its current structure in 1964. A new restaurant/bar was built on the same site, behind the original structure. According to DiBiase, the construction of the new building was only slightly visible from the road, and passers-by got a shock the day the old building was demolished, revealing a new bar that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Nick DiBiase married his wife, Joan, in 1975 and entered the family business in 1977, for what he expected to be a trial period. When Nick’s father passed away in 1978, however, Nick and his wife became the owners, with help from his mother and his sister Debbie.

"It was a lifestyle adjustment," he said. "I started out running the operation for my mother."

Connie’s was able to weather changes in music and culture with remarkable resilience — keeping its faithful patrons and bringing in even more over time.

"We really tried to maintain our cohesiveness with our customers; we were in touch with the crowd all the time," DiBiase said. "You go into a club today and might not have any idea who the owners are. We were always there."

In addition, Connie’s has kept several of its employees through the years, DiBiase said. Richard Gennaro and Joe Lowich have tended bar there for nearly 20 years, while Pat Johnson has worked as waitress and cook on and off since 1979.

"It’s not a real big place," said DiBiase, "and everybody knew everybody."

"Many couples met at Connie’s and then got married," he said.

One such couple is Ed and Barbara Rock, of South River, who have now been married for 14 years. Barbara was once a bartender at Connie’s and Ed happens to be DiBiase’s cousin.

According to Barbara, several family events, like her son’s going away party and her uncle’s 80th birthday, were celebrated at Connie’s.

"I’m really sad that it’s leaving the family," she said.

Jack and Peggy Kenny, of Monroe, first went to Connie’s in 1986 and have been regulars ever since.

"It was not your typical bar," said Jack Kenny. "We knew it was different. It was a place where you could laugh and relax. Nicky and Joanie made everybody feel welcome. They had a knack for making you feel comfortable."

Kenny said that he and his wife knew they would see familiar faces every time they were at Connie’s.

"It was our home away from home," he said.

The interior of Connie’s, with its oldies theme, will remain, according to DiBiase, who is taking only a few personal items from the bar.

"I’m going to give them a hand for a little while," said Nick, explaining that he hopes for a smooth transition between owners. He said he and his wife were hoping for buyers who would keep the bar intact, and were relieved to find another family that wants to keep Connie’s alive.

"Someone could’ve bought the land and made it into an office complex," DiBiase said.

The Sontas are hoping to "take [Connie’s] higher and further," said DiBiase, while keeping the well-loved establishment as close as possible to the original.

Connie’s patrons also say that they will remain faithful to the bar, and hope to see the DiBiases there, too.