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Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu, second from right, and Neeru Arora, from left, Gurjit Pannu Singh and Ashok Arora cut a cake during the 25th anniversary party at Nawab Indian Cuisine.
Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu makes a gesture of gratitude and respect toward well-wishers.
Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu speaks during the 25th anniversary party at Nawab Indian Cuisine.
Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu, second from left, Gurjit Singh Pannu, left, and Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea, center, cut a ribbon during the 25th anniversary party at Nawab Indian Cuisine.
Nawab, celebrating its 25th year in business, is located at 118 Campbell Ave. S.E. in downtown Roanoke.
For Aparappar Singh Pannu, Roanoke is more than just the place where his restaurant, Nawab, first opened its doors 25 years ago.
The city is one he first encountered by chance — beckoned here by a catering order from customers desperate for authentic Indian food at a time when such fare was virtually nonexistent in Southwest Virginia.
“There was nobody else,” recalled Ssunny Shah, a Roanoker for the past three decades, describing the region’s sparse international dining scene back then.
“There was one Taco Bell on Hershberger Road,” he joked. “Everyone else came later on.”
But Pannu, who was working at a restaurant in Hampton Roads at the time, saw something in the community.
Walking downtown, he said he felt life and vibrancy in the city center. He felt potential. On a return trip months later, he walked up to a phone booth and flipped to the yellow pages to find listings for commercial real estate brokers.
Nawab Indian Cuisine — which serves up the rich, flavorful dishes that are hallmarks of Singh’s home province in northern India — opened up not long afterward. Over the past quarter-century, it’s expanded and thrived even in the face of obstacles.
In many ways, its trajectory has tracked with that of Roanoke’s, which has steadily grown more diverse over the years and now proudly celebrates itself as a melting pot of more than 100 nationalities. Each year brings a bustling calendar of festivals and events organized to showcase a different demographic, including the Festival of India, which marked its 15th anniversary this month.
“Roanoke has significantly grown and changed,” said Mayor Sherman Lea, reflecting on the community’s path over the past three decades.
“We’ve always been a welcoming community,” he said. “People feel that. They feel that they are welcome here … That has helped us, and continues to help us.”
Families like the Pannus, who invested in Roanoke and built something in the city, have been a vital part of that growth and change, Lea added.
“It adds a vibrancy to our city,” he said of destinations like Nawab. “People want to come here. People want to be a part of that. I hear it all the time … I met so many people during the Ironman 70.3 competition [which brought together over 2,500 athletes last June] that said, hey, this is my first time coming here. But I’d like to stay here.”
For his own part, Pannu, who now owns three restaurants in Roanoke and Charlotte, North Carolina, couldn’t have predicted the journey that life would take him on when he first emigrated from India to the United States in 1992 at just 22 years of age.
He had never heard of Roanoke at the time, and had no thought of opening his own restaurant until that fateful walk around downtown.
The city would become the home of his first business. It would be the place where his child grew up. It would bring to him countless friendships with longtime customers and business peers.
Standing inside Nawab at a packed celebration for the restaurant’s 25th anniversary in late July, Pannu, who had first come to the city as a stranger, now looked out over a crowd of familiar faces.
“I would like to thank you all for your continuous support and for the love you have given us for 25 years,” he said with his wife and son by his side.
“Roanoke has not only given us this restaurant,” he said, “it’s given us a new life, a new family, a lot of new friends like you. So thank you so much.”
The silver anniversary of the restaurant — which since its grand opening in 1997 has been on Campbell Avenue near the historic City Market Building — is a milestone for not only the eatery but for the wider downtown district.
The changes brought about in downtown over the past decades are keenly illustrated in just the single block where Nawab sits. First opened in an era of limited international options, the restaurant now neighbors a string of Mediterranean kitchens with a Thai restaurant around the corner.
The district, overall, now offers more than 70 dining destinations, said Jaime Clark of Downtown Roanoke Inc. There are also nearly 3,000 people living downtown, up from just a handful 20 years ago, she said.
Those two trend lines aren’t coincidental. More businesses mean more foot traffic and an infusion of energy that attracts people to the district, Clark said.
“If you don’t have activity and businesses down here for people to be interested in, none of the other stuff works,” she said. “The people that took a chance and opened here early on, they definitely helped build the foundation for where we are right now.”
There are no statistics on how Roanoke’s international restaurant scene has grown and changed over the years. But one need only look at the present-day roster of offerings to see how diverse the valley’s restaurants are today, said Landon Howard, president of the regional tourism bureau, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “I think it’s a pleasant surprise to many people who visit here.”
“Part of what makes for a great destination is variety and diversity. The more that you can offer your out-of-town customers, the more that they will fall in love with you as a destination.”
Howard added he thought the valley had, historically, a bigger international population than many might realize, going back to its days as a railroad boom town, when an influx of immigration established significant Greek and Lebanese communities that remain a major part of the region to this day.
That diversity has only continued to grow over time, he said. Census data reports that the percentage of Roanokers born outside the U.S. jumped from 1.6% in 1990 up to 6.6% today. People of color now make up over 38% of the city, compared to 25% three decades earlier, according to the same surveys.
When Nawab was readying to open for its first day in 1997, Pannu found he was nervous as he rushed about settling all the final details.
There were no other Indian restaurants in the community at the time — a newspaper interview about the new eatery kicked off with a short primer on the intricacies of curry, which the article noted Pannu explained with a patient smile.
The young entrepreneur wondered what kind of reception his restaurant could expect when it opened its doors.
“But,” he recalled, “as soon as we opened, people started coming in. We got a very positive response from Roanoke right from the beginning.”
Nawab was able to expand into a neighboring space and double its size in 2001. Then in 2010, it bought the building it occupies. Pannu would go on to open two other restaurants, Copper Modern Indian Cuisine and The Blue Taj, in Charlotte, where he’s recently been based.
Customers of Nawab gushed about its food when they gathered to celebrate its anniversary this summer. Many had been coming to the restaurant since its earliest days.
Pannu said seeing them all gathered together added an extra brightness to the day for him. Twenty-five years in the restaurant business had not always been easy, he reflected later.
“It can be like a roller coaster, a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “By the grace of God, we survived covid.”
But, he added, it was the people, the folks who supported them and the faithful customers who became friends, who rose to mind the most when he looked back over the years.
“We treat our customers, really, from our heart. We treat them like family,” Pannu said. “God willing, we’re going to be in Roanoke for many years.”
Go to this article at roanoke.com to see video.
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Alicia Petska covers business and writes the Business Intel column. She can be reached at (540) 981-3319 or alicia.petska@roanoke.com.
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Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu, second from right, and Neeru Arora, from left, Gurjit Pannu Singh and Ashok Arora cut a cake during the 25th anniversary party at Nawab Indian Cuisine.
Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu makes a gesture of gratitude and respect toward well-wishers.
Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu speaks during the 25th anniversary party at Nawab Indian Cuisine.
Restaurant owner Aparappar Singh Pannu, second from left, Gurjit Singh Pannu, left, and Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea, center, cut a ribbon during the 25th anniversary party at Nawab Indian Cuisine.
Nawab, celebrating its 25th year in business, is located at 118 Campbell Ave. S.E. in downtown Roanoke.
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