Time flies when you’re having fun.

Just ask Sharon Forton, owner/general manager of the Newport Syndicate. The iconic East Fifth Street restaurant and banquet center is marking its 20th anniversary with a series of events including a big New Year’s Eve bash in its Grand Ballroom.

Forton, a veteran of Northern Kentucky’s restaurant scene including the Waterfront and the Conservatory, has been at the Syndicate since it opened in October 1995. 

“I’ve weathered all the storms,” she says. “Any small business lasting 20 years deserves a hoo-ray! It’s not easy to do something for 20 years.”

The Syndicate, as the name suggests, is a direct link to Newport’s notorious past as a haven for gambling, brothels and organized crime. In the 1950s the building was home to Glenn Schmidt’s Playtorium and the Snax Bar. The complex included a restaurant, bowling alley and a casino. 

Rather than ignore its colorful past, the Syndicate embraced it and was an immediate hit.

“Nobody talked about the city’s past,” Forton says. “When we opened it took people a minute. But if they wanted to have a theme party around gambling and flappers they immediately knew what to do. People understand that and from the beginning we did tons of parties like that.”

To capitalize on its history, several years ago Forton turned one of its dining rooms into Gangsters Dueling Piano Bar on weekends and the restaurant serves as home for American Legacy Tours’ walking history tours of sites that once made Newport infamous.

“We were kind of old Hollywood when we started because there was nothing this big you could have a grand affair in and have fine dining,” she says.

“In our 20 years I can’t even image how many people have come through our doors,” says Forton. “One month I counted that we had 8,000 people.”

Over the years the Syndicate has hosted all types of events from big corporate parties to small weddings.

“We’ve always been the ‘love capital,’” she says. “We’ve always done a lot of weddings.” 

Corporate spending on parties slowed after the Great Recession but is showing signs of picking up, Forton says. “We’re doing parties for GE and other big names. We’re excited about that.”

Forton says several factors have contributed to the Syndicate’s success.

“First is our location [downtown] and the nostalgic feel of the building and the great food. It’s restaurant quality in a banquet facility,” she says.

A couple of her personal favorites are the Champagne Chicken and garlic whipped potatoes, which have been on the menu almost from the beginning.

“It’s definitely something that people keep coming back for,” she says.

Forton says what she enjoys most about operating the Syndicate is the challenge of making sure people have a good time.

“You can’t take anything for granted, which I never do.”

Although trends change, Forton says the personal touch, a hallmark at the Syndicate, never goes out of style.

“I love visiting tables and making sure everything is right,” she says.

“We’re always doing something fun, and we’re looking forward to 2016, so it looks like we’ll have a 21st birthday party, too.”