On a busy night at the Colonial, throngs of diners spill out from the building onto sidewalk tables. Laughter rings out from the crowded bar, and the chatter of friends echoes off the building’s brick walls. Diners place their orders and enthuse to the owners about the quality of the food, the shine of the service, the special place that the Colonial has become.
As in all successful restaurants, the staff choreograph the customers’ experience – with hard work and preparation over shifts that can span 12 to 16 hours on the busiest nights. The restaurant industry demands much in the way of time, effort and thick skin on the path to success, but a trio of SUNY Broome alumni wouldn’t have it any other way.
All proud Hornets, Alex Jaffe, Aaron Laughlin and Jordan Ringden are the powerhouses behind The Colonial’s bustling success and an integral part of the foodie scene in downtown Binghamton. Recently, they expanded into the adjacent Court Street storefront with their latest venture: Dos Rios Cantina, a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar that opened the summer of 2018.
“Generally, we try to make a great customer experience — food, service, nothing better than that,” Alex said. “There is always a strategy just to be perfect. … You put your sweat and your heart on the line just to be able to provide pleasure for someone.”
The ingredients of success
Different roads led each of the three to SUNY Broome, where they took classes together while earning their degrees in Hotel and Restaurant Management.
Jordan and Aaron are local – from Conklin and Endwell, respectively – and SUNY Broome seemed the logical choice, even if their career goals were at the time undetermined. Jordan, who played hockey for the college’s team, drifted between becoming a drug counselor or earning a general liberal arts degree. His first restaurant job led to a fruitful meeting with Hospitality Programs Chair Rey Wojdat, and ultimately his current career as the Colonial’s general manager.
Unlike his partners, Laughlin was always involved in the restaurant business; a family friend owned a restaurant and he grew up in that world, he explained. He began his industry career working as a dishwasher at age 16, and one gig led to another. Still, when he decided to attend SUNY Broome after high school, he was initially conflicted as to his future path, although he ultimately returned to his roots in the restaurant industry. He is now the Colonial’s executive chef.
“I like working with my hands. I do enjoy cooking, but I also like the business,” Laughlin reflected. “There is really never a dull moment, whether it’s a full-service, sit-down restaurant or one with a bar. I really enjoy it.”
While Aaron and Jordan are locals, Alex comes from Westchester by way of Binghamton University, from which he graduated with a degree in human development. He was working on his master’s in public administration when he had a moment of panic, wondering where his passion truly lay. His mother recommended that he take a cooking class to de-stress.
He explored his options at SUNY Broome, where he met Professor Wojdat and learned about the Hotel & Restaurant
Management program. The coursework fascinated him and he enrolled, with Quantity Food Production as his first course.
The three share an appreciation for the hands-on nature of their SUNY Broome coursework, whether smoking meat for 18 hours on the Quad or catering an event entirely on their own at a local hotel. Setup, cooking, cleanup, how to react to situations in an industry in which no day is exactly the same – all were covered.
“There is something nice about a 9-hour class,” said Jaffe, remembering his catering course, cited as a favorite of all three partners. “In this field, you learn a lot by experience, so it’s great that we had courses like that.”
Professor Wojdat was also a pivotal figure in their decision to pursue careers in hospitality, and prepared them well for a tough industry in which first impressions, work ethic and the ability to adapt to circumstances as they change are essentials.
“He helped counsel and guide you, and he was a realist. He tells you how it is,” Ringden said. “Rey Wojdat helped prepare me for the real world by being up front and honest. It made it significantly easier to transition into the industry. This isn’t a 9-5 job.”
Serving up a great time
After graduating, Alex Jaffe knew he wanted to open a bar and restaurant somewhere in Binghamton. A few years ago, his old landlord called him about a prospective location and the pieces began falling into place.
The landlord became a partner. Another business partner owned Saketumi, a restaurant across the street where Jordan happened to be head chef and Aaron a line cook. Jordan and Aaron joined the enterprise and stayed, save for a brief period during which Jordan went to work at The Krebs in Skaneateles before returning home.
The Colonial opened on Superbowl Sunday in 2015 and has become a popular Binghamton hangout for people of all ages. It’s the ultimate vision behind the restaurant: A place where people of all kinds – say, a professor and a student — can grab a beer together, connect and have a great time.
With one successful restaurant, the partners decided to branch off into another. Every Cinco de Mayo, the Colonial featured a Mexican-themed menu, which proved to be quite popular among patrons, Jaffe explained. A Mexican restaurant and tequila bar seemed a prime addition to the space next door. Dos Rios Cantina opened this summer, with Aaron as the executive chef and head kitchen manager.
“This isn’t really the kind of business where you get a break, but it never loses the thrill to see the place full and everyone having a good time,” Aaron said.
The partners use the skills they developed in their Hotel and Restaurant Management degree program every day on the job in a variety of ways. Classes are wide-ranging and cover topics such as professional cooking, sanitation and safety, hospitality law, bartending, accounting, cost control and more, as well as professional internships.
They are looking forward to the opening of SUNY Broome’s future Culinary Arts Center in the historic Carnegie Library building just a few blocks away. The hospitality industry is thriving in Binghamton and the Culinary Arts Center would contribute to the city’s ongoing revitalization, they said.
If you’re interested in the hospitality industry, SUNY Broome is a great place to start.
“If you have an interest in the industry, go to SUNY Broome and try it out. You will probably love it,” Jaffe said. “SUNY Broome gave us a very hands-on experience you don’t get in every classroom.”