As Binghamton University students venture through restaurants and stores around Downtown Binghamton, they may notice many businesses are run by once-students themselves.
Among the vast network of alumni-owned businesses in Downtown Binghamton and beyond are The Colonial, Binghamton Hots and Confluence Running, each owned and founded by BU graduates. Alex Jaffe, ‘12, MPA ‘14, is an owner and a founder of The Colonial, a bar and restaurant frequented by BU students. The idea came to Jaffe while he was obtaining his graduate degree.
“[Ron Kweller, ‘04] was my landlord at the time, he was my ex-landlord while I was in [graduate school], we had talked about opening a bar for a while,” Jaffe said. “The opportunity came [when] he bought that building, and we were looking at it and wanted to open up a restaurant.”
Their intentions, however, were larger than founding a restaurant. Jaffe sought to break barriers and provide a new social outlet for members of the BU community.
“The initial goal was a student and a teacher could sit next to each other and not feel awkward because, at the time, it kind of felt like there were really only student bars and local bars in Binghamton, and we wanted to make a place that blended those together,” Jaffe said.
Two years later, The Colonial’s owners pursued another new venture — Dos Rios Cantina, a restaurant and bar serving Mexican cuisine. Jaffe described his ongoing investment in Binghamton as a commitment to bringing life to a recently revitalized Downtown Binghamton.
“It wasn’t always the case, especially 10 years ago when I was in college, it was just State Street, there was not a whole else lot to offer,” Jaffe said. “So we wanted to keep building that and making it a place where locals could come, students could come and just a good destination.”
Jaffe’s sentiments were shared by David Whalen, ‘05, founder and owner of Binghamton Hots — another downtown restaurant. Whalen sought to revitalize Downtown Binghamton for BU students, particularly after the influx of local student housing complexes following the creation of the University Downtown Center (UDC) in 2007.
“There wasn’t anything really in the way of dining, especially in the way we wanted, in the hours that we wanted, which was kind of late at night and not on the weekends,” Whalen said. “That was the driver behind Binghamton Hots, creating a model that would cater to that clientele specifically.”
Whalen, who had graduated from the School of Management (SOM), cited his education at BU as an important factor in developing his business.
“The SOM certainly fostered that kind of entrepreneurial spirit and gave me a lot of the foundational skills and education that I would need in terms of marketing, accounting, strategic planning and things of that nature,” Whalen said.
Though his time as a student at BU has passed, Whalen expressed an interest in opening a Binghamton Hots location at BU, which he viewed as a personal endeavor.
“From my perspective, it would kind of be a way for me to give back and to serve the student population and school as a whole because I do owe quite a bit of my success today [to] the University and the student body,” Whalen said.
According to Whalen, his efforts to introduce Binghamton Hots to BU have slowed due to COVID-19 though he intends to continue to push for the location as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to settle.
Other local alumni have ventured outside of the restaurant business, including Matt Gawors, ‘10, MBA ‘12, owner and co-founder of Confluence Running, a running specialty store located on Oakdale Rd.
After graduating from SOM, Gawors was eventually contacted by Ian Golden, owner of the Finger Lakes Running Company, who sought to expand his company — then in Ithaca —to a location in Binghamton. Gawors, at the time a professional triathlete, took up Golden on the opportunity.
“I jumped into it,” Gawors said. “I started it up with him, he financed it, he did a lot of the centralized work and I took care of more of the marketing [and] driving of customer relationships.
According to Gawors, the company has expanded since, growing from $370,000 in revenue in its first year in 2013 to a projected $1.25 – $2 million in revenue in 2021, also acquiring two new locations.
Gawors discussed how the relationships he formed in SOM were instrumental to helping him found his business, specifically recalling his experiences with his leadership and entrepreneurship professor, Angelo Mastrangelo.
“We had a few different projects that we were working on with undergraduates and other graduate students,” Gawors said. “He let me take leadership of what we were working with. It was a great experience and taught me quite a bit to be able to push myself forward, so it was definitely a good experience.”
Gawors advised students at BU interested in entrepreneurship to remain adaptable and ready for what the journey has in store for them.
“We do that consistently, where there’s an opportunity, we are going toward it, but we say, ‘You know what, let’s go this direction instead,’ so we turn and go that direction,” Gawors said. “And it works out well, you just need to know how to move quickly, and that’s one of the biggest things in entrepreneurship, that and having a great team.”