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 to be is a story only made possible 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 has been helping groups in the Pittsburgh area going back to the late 2000s. They would be contacted whenever groups were scheduled to arrive and would help by shopping and getting necessities for the refugees, who would often come with little to nothing of their own.
“We’d work with the charities and I would hit up end of season sales to stock up on items,” Bradwick said.
Their aid would eventually come around full circle.
Bradwick started Thai Cafe (now Thai@Indiana) on Seventh Street and eventually needed to sell the restaurant. Nan Kyawt Khin entered the picture with plans to buy the restaurant.
A stranger at the time, Bradwick and Lancaster were surprised when she said, “’I know you. You helped us,’” Bradwick said. “It turned out she had been one of the refugees we had helped.”
Nan, in turn, helped other refugees and immigrants to 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 oldest son was a few months old, settling in Pittsburgh. Arriving in Indiana in 2017, the two were friends of Nan and came to work as cooks for her.
While they were working there, Romona was scouted by a representative for AFC Sushi, a company out of Los Angeles.
“He handpicked Romona after watching how she interacted with customers,” Bradwick said. “He came in and told her that he would like to have her start a sushi franchise on IUP’s campus. She came to me and asked me what to do. We talked and decided it would be a good opportunity for her. And so she went out to L.A. to train to be a sushi chef and we ended up watching her boys since her husband was working in Pittsburgh for the summer.”
While training in Los Angeles, Romona learned to make “beautiful sushi and she graduated at the top of her class,” Bradwick said.
When she returned to Indiana, Romona operated a sushi stand at the Crimson Cafe on campus until the pandemic hit. After students came partially back, the sushi stand was moved to the HUB. However, she wasn’t there long before Aramark came to her and told her that, while she still had a year to go on her contract with AFC, Aramark and AFC were done as of May 2021.
Worried about having to move out of state, the “found family” of immigrants and friends in Indiana pooled together to help keep Romona and her family in the community.
“She had bought a house here,” Bradwick said. “Her kids are doing well and so we sat and worked together to keep her here.”
As Thai@Indiana thrived, Nan eventually came to Bradwick and said she had wanted to buy a commercial property along Philadelphia Street and, after several years of looking, the building at 556 Philadelphia came to them after some negotiating after the previous owner had died.
“Nan had hoped to move her business,” Bradwick said. “But they just pooled 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. “It keeps the kids in town instead of having them move out of state or back to Pittsburgh. If they had, they wouldn’t have the freedom that they do here and once the kids put down roots, the parents often put down roots, too.”
Helping the families to settle and stay in the community is a cause near and dear to both Bradwick and Lancaster.
Bradwick, formerly an accounting professor at IUP, was always happy to get to know her international students and help to welcome them. Among those were two of the first students from Myanmar to study at IUP, Chaw Darli and her husband, Zaw Maung.
Bradwick and Lancaster got to know them well, taking them into their home to help them finish their degrees. Through them, they got to understand and become sympathetic to the political upheaval in their home country and became aware of troubles facing other international students.
“I’ve always tended to take international students under my wing,” Bradwick said. “I’d get to talking with them and I would learn that, generally, no Americans had ever invited them into their houses.”
“We’d see students who weren’t able to go home over breaks staying in their dorms and eating Ramen noodles over Thanksgiving break,” Lancaster said.
“So we started to invite them to our house for a full Thanksgiving spread and eventually we said, what else is quintessentially American? A barbecue in the spring.”
The couple opened their dinners and more and more students would come. “When they would offer to bring something, we’d tell them to bring something from their own culture,” Lancaster said.
The relationships they formed with these students bolstered and added to Bradwick and Lancaster’s lives in ways they never expected. Now, through helping Nan, Romona and Than, the two have become grandparents to their kids and have created a wonderful found family.
“I always knew I was going to be someone’s mother or grandmother,” Bradwick said. “But I never felt the compulsion to have my own kids. I like to say I started a restaurant and it brought me grandkids and an extended family. All of this because (Chaw) Darli took my class.”
“If we had kids of our own, we’d be helping them out the same way,” Lancaster said. “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 that they didn’t overlap too much with what is offered at Thai@Indiana.
Pan Asia offers dishes from many different Asian cultures and cuisines. Than does most of the cooking in the back of the house, bringing with him more than 10 years of experience cooking in Malaysia, while Romona does a bulk of the sushi making.
“The menu offers a lot of things you’d have to go to Pittsburgh to find,” Lancaster said. “We saw that there’s a good market for this kind of cooking with the Thai restaurant. But this is still something unique and affordable for Indiana. It’s all rich and wonderful food. It’s hearty food that you’d expect a grandmother to create.”
The restaurant held its grand opening Tuesday and is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. All those involved hope to bring an enriching culinary and cultural experience to Indiana.
“What these folks are doing isn’t much different than what my relatives did when they moved over here from Germany,” Bradwick said. “They arrived in the U.S. and did what it is they knew how to do, which was bake, so they opened a bakery. What these families are doing is the Southeast Asian equivalent. What we’re doing, helping these families, is something we hoped that others did for our relatives when they came here. And if that didn’t happen then, we want to be the model and help others do the same. These folks are immigrants and what they’re doing is enriching our society.”
“And it’s a good way to give back to the community,” Lancaster added. “It adds diversity and eventually, Than and Romona will hire others and give them jobs and help even more people. We hope that people come out and get to know them and enjoy some good food while they’re at it.”