SARATOGA SPRINGS – An established restaurateur with an amazing background, Colleen Holmes is making history. For the second year in a row, she has been elected as chairwoman of the New York State Restaurant Association – the first woman in its 76-year history. NYSRA has over 3000 members and serves over 10,000 restaurants, taverns, and dining establishments throughout New York State. Colleen, along with her husband Tim, owns Wheatfield’s in Saratoga Springs, and Wheatfield’s Bistro & Wine Bar in Clifton Park.
Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, Colleen moved to the Windy City after graduation from Michigan State with a degree in science. She had already dug her hands into the restaurant business when, at 16, she and a friend catered parties, so entering the food industry after graduation from college seemed a natural course of events.
She began working with Lettuce Entertain You, a business which partners with creative business owners and employees to establish successful restaurants and dining establishments. Lettuce currently owns, licenses or manages more than 80 places in Illinois, California, Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia and Nevada.
“The idea of the company is to surround yourself with successful and creative people who know more than you do,” explained Colleen.
It was while working with Lettuce that she operated her first restaurant – a fine dining French restaurant called Tuxedo’s – in which she learned all the behind the scenes details.
“It was a full French kitchen and the customers never saw me,” said Colleen. “I got to work out of there with some of the best culinary chefs. It is the true definition of fine dining.”
From there she went on to manage a Greek restaurant – the first female manager at the male dominated establishment in its history. It was another stepping stone for her.
“Everyone spoke Greek and Yorgo (pronounced Ur-Oh-Go) took me under his wing and taught me Greek and the correct pronunciation of all the words,” said Colleen, who said it was a fabulous learning experience for her.
“It was an opportunity for me to work with skilled culinary teams while also learning the intricacies of the restaurant business. I was able to learn profits and loss, payrolls, tax and liabilities,” continued Colleen. “[Lettuce] had a lot of great training programs.”
She met Tim while working with Lettuce – he was also a partner with the entertainment-based company – and after they married, the couple realized they needed to move closer to his young children who lived in Saratoga County.
“My stepchildren live here and when they became school-aged, we knew they couldn’t be shuttled back and forth,” she explained.
To make the move, Colleen and Tim opened a consulting business for restaurant owners – Restaurant Consulting Partners.
“We decided to open a company to help independent restaurant owners,” said Colleen, noting that for many small business owners, the resources and capital needed to address problems that are universal for the business are often not available. “The issues are the same no matter where you are. The guys in New York City still have the same issues as the guys in Upstate New York, just add a bunch more zeroes.”
With the business established, they moved to Boston, but that too, still required too much travelling for the kids and themselves. It was then the couple began to eye the Capital Region for a restaurant they could hang their star on.
“We first moved to Massachusetts, but hundreds of hours later in the car we started looking here,” said Colleen. “We looked at a lot of places all over the entire Capital Region – Albany, Clifton Park, Schenectady. We looked all over.”
But it was the charm and draw of Saratoga Springs that won their hearts, and the thrill and passion of operating a restaurant that dealt with fresh, homemade pastas.
“There were three things that sealed our choice to be here,” said Colleen. “One is location – downtown Saratoga. Two – the bones of the restaurant business is fresh pasta and going back to its roots of the pasta industry; and three, Saratoga Springs – it is still the sunny spot of the state. It has a strong community, the landscape is changing in a positive way and the diversity of Saratoga Springs is second to none.”
It is that diversity, she explained, that helps the community and business environment of the Spa City continue to grow in positive ways.
“You have 150 years of the Saratoga race track, the arts, the business community,” explained Colleen. “One of the things my dad taught me was not to put all your eggs in one basket. That is something good about growing up where the place is economically dependent on one industry – it teaches you to look for that diversity.”
Since Colleen has always been involved with the community she lives in, it was natural for her to join the New York State Restaurant Association, an organization that strives to protect and advocate for its members.
NYSRA got its start in 1935 when the country was grappling with the Depression and many New York restaurants were struggling to survive. Add to the mix the avalanche of governmental agencies and legislature that were being formed because of Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” That is when six businessmen from throughout that state got together and organized the New York State Restaurant Association in an effort to deal with all the changes coming about.
The real test of NYSRA as a liaison for restaurant owners came with World War II when rationing, price controls, workforce shortages and blackouts posed huge problems for restaurants and eateries. It was during that time period the Association became the accepted spokesperson for the industry and was consulted on a continuous basis.
Offering brainstorming sessions, educational opportunities and a legislative voice, NYSRA has grown to be a powerful tool for owners of restaurants, taverns and bars.
“There are thousands of legislature and judicial decisions that could affect restaurant owners,” explained Colleen, adding that even one little word could drastically affect an owner’s establishment and way of operating. “While some of the laws may look good on paper, if left worded that way it could affect small businesses adversely. What has been fun and refreshing is our renewed relationship with the Governor’s office.”
Colleen’s involvement with the organization was a natural progression. As soon as she moved to Malta, she joined the organization and within months was on their Board of Directors, which consists of 13 members from across the state.
From there she went on to be its treasurer and in 2010, her name was being mentioned as a possible nominee for chair.
“I knew my name was being kicked around,” said Colleen. “Then they asked me if I would be interested.”
She pointed out being involved with NYSRA has been a tremendous resource for her and easy to be passionate about.
“If I don’t understand something I can depend on others in the Association to help me boil it down,” said Colleen. “Dues are nominal – I get my money back tenfold.”
She said she feels at home in Saratoga and that taking over Wheatfield’s in 2004 was a great opportunity for her and her husband and their children, step-kids Jessica, 20, Timothy, 18, and daughter, six year old Sarah.
“The expansion of the City Center, the Woodlawn parking lot and the promotions of the city all make a difference,” said Colleen, pointing out the Chowderfest held in February as yet another way the Spa City works to promote local businesses and growth.
“[Saratoga restaurants] serve thousands and thousands cups of chowder – you can’t believe the number of people who come through the doors. It could be the dead of winter anywhere else,” said Colleen. “But in Saratoga it is a party.”