Food and family often go hand in hand. And the story of how the new Pan Asia Cafe at 556 Philadelphia St. in Indiana came about is a story made possible only by families who have come together over generations and thousands of miles.
Faye Bradwick and Don Lancaster from Indiana are no strangers to helping refugees. The couple have been supporting groups in the Pittsburgh area since the late 2000s. They were always contacted when groups were due to arrive and helped with shopping and getting essentials for the refugees, who often arrived with little to nothing.
“We worked with the charities and I would buy sales at the end of the season to stock up on items,” said Bradwick.
Your help would eventually come full circle.
Bradwick started the Thai Cafe (now Thai @ Indiana) on Seventh Street and eventually had to sell the restaurant. Nan Kyawt Khin entered the picture with plans to buy the restaurant.
Bradwick and Lancaster were strangers then and were surprised when she said, “’I know you. You helped us, ‘”said Bradwick. “It turned out that she was one of the refugees we had 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 and settled in Pittsburgh. When they first arrived in Indiana in 2017, the two were friends of Nan and worked for her as cooks.
While they were working there, Romona was discovered by a representative from AFC Sushi, a Los Angeles company.
“He handpicked Romona after watching her interact with customers,” said Bradwick. “He came in and told her he’d like her to open a sushi franchise on the IUP campus. She came to me and asked me what to do. We talked and decided it would be a good opportunity for her. So she went to LA to train to be a sushi chef and we watched her boys as her husband worked in Pittsburgh for the summer. “
While training in Los Angeles, Romona learned “how to make beautiful sushi and she graduated top of the class,” said Bradwick.
When she returned to Indiana, Romona ran a sushi stand in the Crimson Cafe on campus until the pandemic broke out. After some of the students returned, the sushi stand was moved to the HUB. However, she wasn’t there long before Aramark came to her and told her that Aramark and AFC were ready by May 2021, even though she still had a year before her contract with AFC.
The “found family” of immigrants and friends in Indiana feared leaving the state and banded together to keep Romona and her family in the community.
“She bought a house here,” said Bradwick. “Your kids are fine, so we sat down and worked together to keep them here.”
When Thai @ Indiana was thriving, Nan finally came to Bradwick and said she wanted to buy a commercial property on Philadelphia Street and after several years of searching, the building at 556 Philadelphia came to them after some negotiation after the previous owner’s death.
“Nan was hoping to relocate her business,” said Bradwick. “But they just got together and bought a shop here. Nan and I own the building, but Romona and Than own the business. “
“It’s also a way to keep the family together,” added Lancaster. “It keeps the kids in town instead of letting them move out of state or back to Pittsburgh. Otherwise they would not have the freedom that they have here, and when the children put down roots, the parents often put down roots too. “
Helping families settle down and stay in the community is important to Bradwick and Lancaster.
Bradwick, a former accounting professor at the IUP, was always happy to meet and welcome her international students. Among them were two of the first students from Myanmar to study at the IUP, Chaw Darli and her husband Zaw Maung.
Bradwick and Lancaster got to know her well and took her home to help them graduate. Through them they learned to understand and understand the political upheaval in their home country and became aware of the problems of other international students.
“I’ve always taken international students under my wing,” said Bradwick. “I got into conversation with them and learned that in general no American had ever invited them into their homes.”
“We saw students unable to go home over breaks, stay in their dorms, and eat ramen noodles during Thanksgiving break,” Lancaster said.
“So we started inviting her over to our house for a full Thanksgiving stay, and finally we said what else is typically American? A barbecue in spring. “
The couple opened their dinners and more and more students came. “When they offered to bring something, we told them to bring something from their own culture,” said Lancaster.
The relationships they made with these students strengthened and enriched Bradwick and Lancaster’s lives in ways they never expected. With the help of Nan, Romona and Than, the two have now become grandparents of their children and have created a wonderful family.
“I always knew I was going to be someone’s mother or grandmother,” said Bradwick. “But I’ve never felt compelled 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 attended my class. “
“If we had children of our own, we would help them the same way,” said Lancaster. “But now we have our own family of choice.”
This family of choice also worked together to help Romona and Than create their menu so they don’t overlap too much with what Thai @ Indiana has to offer.
Pan Asia offers dishes from many different Asian cultures and cuisines. Then he cooks mostly in the back of the house and brings more than 10 years of cooking experience in Malaysia, while Romona takes over most of the sushi making.
“The menu has a lot of things that would have to be found in Pittsburgh,” said Lancaster. “We saw that the Thai restaurant is a good market for this type of cuisine. But that’s still something unique and affordable to Indiana. It’s all rich and wonderful food. It’s a hearty meal you’d expect from a grandmother. “
The restaurant celebrated its grand opening on Tuesday and is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Everyone involved hopes to bring an enriching culinary and cultural experience to Indiana.
“What these people are doing is not much different than what my relatives were doing when they moved here from Germany,” said Bradwick. “They got to the US and did what they knew to bake, so they opened a bakery. What these families do is the Southeast Asian equivalent. What we do to help these families, we hope others did for our relatives when they came here. And then if that didn’t happen, we want to be role models and help others do the same. These people are immigrants and what they do enriches our society. “
“And it’s a great way to give back to the community,” added Lancaster. “It adds diversity and eventually Than and Romona will hire others and give them jobs and help even more people. We hope that people will come, meet them and enjoy good food while they are at it. “