Food and family often go hand in hand. And the story of the birth of the new Pan Asia Cafe at 556 Philadelphia St., Indiana is a story made possible only by families coming together across generations and thousands of miles.
Faye Bradwick and Don Lancaster of Indiana are no strangers to helping refugees. The married couple have been helping groups in the Pittsburgh area since the late 2000s. They would be contacted whenever groups arrived and would help with shopping and providing basic necessities for the refugees, who often came with little. or nothing on their own.
âWe were working with charities and I was doing end-of-season sales to stock up on items,â Bradwick said.
Their help would come full circle.
Bradwick started Thai Cafe (now Thai @ Indiana) on Seventh Street and eventually had to sell the restaurant. Nan Kyawt Khin entered the scene with the intention of buying the restaurant.
Strange back then, Bradwick and Lancaster were surprised when she said, âI know you. You have helped us, âsaid Bradwick. âIt turned out that she was one of the refugees we helped.
Nan, in turn, helped other refugees and immigrants find jobs, including Romona and Than John, both refugees from Myanmar via Malaysia. The couple had come to the United States in 2009 when their eldest son was a few months old, moving to Pittsburgh. Arriving in Indiana in 2017, the two were friends of Nan and came to work as cooks for her.
While working there, Romona was spotted by a representative from AFC Sushi, a Los Angeles-based company.
âHe handpicked Romona after seeing how she interacted with customers,â Bradwick said. âHe walked in and told her he would like her to start a sushi franchise on the IUP campus. She came to see me and asked me what to do. We talked and decided this would be a good opportunity for her. And so she went to LA for sushi chef training and we ended up watching her boys since her husband was working in Pittsburgh for the summer.
While training in Los Angeles, Romona learned how to make “beautiful sushi and she graduated top of the class,” Bradwick said.
Upon returning to Indiana, Romona operated a sushi stand at the Crimson Cafe on campus until the pandemic struck. After the partial return of the students, the sushi stand was moved to the HUB. However, she wasn’t there long before Aramark came to see her and told her that, with she still had a year to complete her contract with the AFC, Aramark and the AFC had ended in May 2021.
Worried about having to leave the state, the âfound familyâ of immigrants and friends in Indiana have come together to help keep Romona and her family in the community.
âShe had bought a house here,â Bradwick said. “Her kids are doing fine so we sat down and worked together to keep her here.”
As Thai @ Indiana prospered, Nan eventually came to Bradwick and said she wanted to buy commercial property along Philadelphia Street and after several years of searching the building at 556 Philadelphia came to them after some negotiations after the death of the former owner.
âNan had hoped to relocate her business,â Bradwick said. âBut they just got together and bought a business here. Nan and I own the building, but Romona and Than own the business.
“It’s also a way to keep the family together,” Lancaster added. âIt keeps kids in town instead of forcing them out of state or back to Pittsburgh. If they had, they wouldn’t have the freedom they have here and once the kids take root, the parents often take root too.
Helping families settle down and stay in the community is a cause dear to Bradwick and Lancaster.
Bradwick, formerly Professor of Accounting at IUP, was always happy to get to know his international students and help welcome them. Among these were two of Myanmar’s first students to study at IUP, Chaw Darli and her husband, Zaw Maung.
Bradwick and Lancaster got to know them well, taking them home to help them complete their education. Thanks to them, they were able to understand and sympathize with the political upheavals in their home country and became aware of the problems facing other international students.
âI’ve always tended to take international students under my wing,â Bradwick said. “I spoke with them and learned that, generally, no American had ever invited them into their homes.”
âWe were seeing students who couldn’t go home during breaks staying in their dorms and eating ramen noodles during the Thanksgiving vacation,â Lancaster said.
âSo we started inviting them over to our house for a full Thanksgiving meal and we finally said, what’s uniquely American? A barbecue in the spring.
The couple opened their dinners and more and more students were coming. âWhen they offered to bring something, we would tell them to bring something from their own culture,â Lancaster said.
The relationships they formed with these students strengthened and added to the lives of Bradwick and Lancaster in ways they never expected. Now, by helping Nan, Romona and Than, the two have become their children’s grandparents and created a wonderful, found family.
âI always knew I was going to be someone’s mom or grandmother,â Bradwick said. âBut I never felt the need to have my own children. I like to say that I started a restaurant and it brought me grandchildren and an extended family. All because (Chaw) Darli took my course.
âIf we had our own children, we would help them in the same way,â Lancaster said. âBut now we have our own family of choice. “
This select family has also worked together to help Romona and Than create their menu so they don’t overlap too much with what’s on offer at Thai @ Indiana.
Pan Asia offers dishes from different Asian cultures and cuisines. Than does most of the cooking in the back of the house, bringing with him over 10 years of cooking experience in Malaysia, while Romona takes care of most of the sushi making.
âThe menu offers a lot of things that one would have to go to Pittsburgh to find,â Lancaster said. âWe saw that there was a good market for this type of cuisine with the Thai restaurant. But it’s still something unique and affordable for Indiana. It is rich and wonderful food. It is hearty food that one expects from a grandmother. “
The restaurant opened on Tuesday and is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. All attendees hope to bring a rewarding culinary and cultural experience to Indiana.
âWhat these people are doing is not much different from what my parents did when they moved here from Germany,â Bradwick said. âThey came to the States and did what they knew how to do, which was to cook, so they opened a bakery. What these families are doing is the equivalent of Southeast Asia. What we are doing, helping these families, is something we hoped others would do for our loved ones when they came here. And if that doesn’t happen then, we want to be the role model and help others to do the same. These people are immigrants and what they do enriches our society.
âAnd it’s a great way to give back to the community,â Lancaster added. âIt adds diversity and eventually Than and Romona will hire more, give them jobs and help more people. We hope people come out, get to know them, and enjoy some great food while they are there.