WESTVILLE – An immigrant family who saw their American dream literally go up in smoke last month has received an outpouring of support from the community as they try to put the pieces back together.
The Pecanec family immigrated to the U.S. from Croatia in 1995, "escaping an ugly and dangerous civil war" in the Balkans, according to Olga Pecanec Pothorski, who was just 5 years old when her parents, Ilija and Esada, came to America after being chosen in a lottery.
"They knew one person, a cousin in Chicago, so that is where they first went," she said.
Ilija Pecanec, having worked at Siemens in Berlin, found a position as an electrician at the Westville Correctional Center, according to his daughter.
"We learned to appreciate Westville because of its quiet, safe, small-town feel," Pecanec said. And her parents were glad it even had a college where she could attend someday.
Esada Pecanec had finished culinary training in Europe, but her first American job was driving a bus for the Valparaiso Community Schools.
"But her dream was to open a restaurant," Olga said.
"People should be able to get a quality, European dining experience without having to travel to a larger city or Europe," Esada said of her goal.
When Olga was a student at Westville High School, they decided to make the leap.
"We purchased the rather dilapidated old Ford garage on Main Street in downtown Westville," she said. "We worked diligently for 14 long months, doing most of the work ourselves, to transform that empty old eyesore into a small gem of a restaurant."
It even featured a state-of-the-art, arched brick oven ordered from California.
"It was going to be the focal point of the restaurant," Olga said, "but when the oven finally arrived, it was so large we had to widen a doorway to get it inside. Wide-open doors were part of the restaurant from that point forward."
On Nov. 11, 2007, the restaurant opened.
"We laughed, we cried, we celebrated; and that day changed our lives forever," she said.
They named the restaurant Olga's Place, where she worked side-by-side with her mother in the kitchen and waiting tables, while also attending high school and then Purdue University North Central, where she would later earn a business degree.
A porch area and an outdoor oven in a second patio area were added in 2019.
By then, "Olga's became the place to celebrate special occasions such as wedding or baby showers, anniversaries, birthdays, and retirements," according to Kathie Long, a longtime community resident and friend of the family.
"It was the place to go for good food, but also to be treated like family. A place to relax, enjoy a brick oven pizza or a leisurely, delicious European inspired meal such as pierogies, roast pork, salmon, calzones, spaghetti, and ahhhhh — the breadsticks!"
The restaurant was a success, but Olga said she wanted to do more.
"I had a yearning to give back to the Westville community, and I wanted to help improve the quality of life in town," she said. "I had ideas, lots of ideas, so I decided to run for Town Council."
She was elected in 2015, the youngest person ever on the Council, and has worked to improve the downtown, including bringing an annual artisan festival to town with The Collective, modeled after a European street market; and helping develop a park improvement plan.
Mandy Krickhan of Valparaiso, founder of The Collective and owner of The spOiled Housewife in Valparaiso, said helping her friend is just payback.
"I first met Olga a few years ago, and we instantly hit it off. I had recently started my skin care business and we bonded over being small business owners. At that time, she had a restaurant in Valpo, and she invited me to set up a booth during a small pop-up market. We had a lot of fun and decided to do something at her restaurant.
"Around that time, there was a little girl living in Westville who was diagnosed with liver cancer. Olga and I hosted a giveback night for her at Olga’s Place, then we decided to host a market (with the help of the Westville Area Chamber of Commerce) that would also benefit the little girl. The event was a huge success, and there was nearly $1,100 raised."
In 2018, Olga married Croatian childhood friend Bojan Pothorski, who works in the technology department at the Westville Correctional Facility while studying to become a citizen and officiating his favorite sport, soccer.
Life was good until Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, when everything changed.
A fire left Olga's Place a heap of charred rubble, which Olga said "resembled and brought back long ago memories of bombed-out homes and businesses in our home country."
Gazing on the remains of what represented so many years of their lives was a "surreal experience that we never imagined would be repeated," she said, adding they were "blessed that nobody was injured" in the fire, the cause of which remains undetermined.
But their American dream was no more, though they were able to fulfill a New Year's Eve catering gig at the Civic Auditorium in La Porte, scheduled months in advance.
That's when Long, a member of Tri Kappa and Westville United Methodist Church, stepped in.
"Westville has been blessed by Olga and her family. Whenever anyone asked for support or a food donation for a fundraiser or community project, they were there to help," she said. "Many in the community and beyond want to support this family, as it will take time for insurance to settle, and in the meantime, they are trying to honor commitments and keep going."
She said she got to know Olga through the restaurant, and became friends with her and her husband.
"We traveled to Croatia a few years ago, so she taught us some basic language and gave us travel tips. I helped her with her campaign by phone calling and knocking on doors. She’s a member of Tri Kappa and came in while I was president. And I had a large birthday/retirement party there recently, which was wonderful."
After the fire, Long asked if she could open a benefit account, since Esada has no other source of income.
"Croatians are proud, independent people," Long said. "They do not easily accept help from others, but the Westville community and beyond are looking for a way to show their love for this family who has so readily shown their love over the years and lost so much."
She started an account at 1st Source Bank in Westville, and a GoFundMe page, to help the family meet prior catering commitments until insurance is settled.
Part of her wish to help came from personal experience, Long said.
"My own grandparents, John Carlson and Clara Nelson, came as 20-year-olds from Sweden to Chicago in 1900. ... I remember finding their names at Ellis Island with pride and marveling at how someone so young could give up their homes and families, and travel a vast ocean to come to an unknown place where they knew no one.
"They loved their new country, worked hard, got married, and raised four successful sons. From family accounts, they achieved their American dream. Most Americans, I believe, share a story much like this."
Her family also decided to chip in and help, she said.
"My extended family suggested we give our family Christmas donation to them. We stopped doing presents several years ago at our family gathering, and give money we would have spent on presents to a charity instead."
Krickhahn feels the same way, and has organized a series of fundraising events.
"One of the things I love most about Olga is her constant willingness to help and support those around her. When Gabrielle Pazour and I launched The Collective, Olga was one of the first people to join. She was a constant cheerleader who was always lifting us up. She also supported other members the same way she supported us.
"So, when the fire happened, it was just a natural reaction from all of us to come together and support her in the way she supports others. The day after the fire, we started figuring out ways we could help and got the ball rolling. We wanted to be able to launch the events on social media and start promoting right after the holidays," she said.
"As hard as it is to see them go through this, it has been so amazing to see everyone rally around them to help them get back on their feet."
Pecanec said it's all been more than she imagined.
"We cannot begin to thank everyone for the love and support that we received since the fire," she said.
HOW TO HELP
• A GoFundMe page has been set up at gofundme.com/f/support-olga039s-place-after-devastating-fire
• Am Olga's Restaurant Benefit account has been established at 1st Source Bank on U.S. 421 in Westville to support Olga's mom, whose only income came from the restaurant, and to assist with costs to meet prior catering commitments. Donations will also help the family start again.
• Burn 'Em Brewing and The Collective will host a giveback night for Olga's Place from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan, 21, at the brewery at 718 Freyer Rd. in Michigan City. Burn 'Em will be tapping "Today, I'm Delicious," the specialty beer brewed as a fundraiser. They will be donating all proceeds from the sale of this beer to the family. Additionally, The Collective will donate an additional $2 per pint sold. Robert Rolfe Feddersen will be making his return to vinyl night for the 21-and-over event.
• Aster + Gray will host a benefit market from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at 20 Indiana Ave. in Valparaiso. The small artisan market, with a portion of vendor and Aster + Gray sales donated to Olga's family, will feature 12 local businesses and beer by Burn 'Em – all proceeds from the sale of "Today, I'm Delicious" will be donated. Other participating businesses include The SpOiled Housewife, Nora Rae Macrame, WoodenJacket, Lumberjax, Nomad Breadth, Addy Lou Creates, FLUID Coffeebar, Be Good Juicerie, Plant Lady, and Indigo Ink designs.
• Bare Bones Gastropub and The Collective will host an an-all ages giveback night for Olga's from 6-10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, at 518 Lincoln Way in La Porte. Bare Bones will be tapping "Today, I'm Delicious," and all proceeds from the sale of the beer will be donated to Olga's family. Neil Allesee will be playing live from 8-9:30 p.m.