Downtown State College restaurant owner avoids jail for theft. ‘I’m sorry this happened’

Abby Drey/

A downtown State College restaurant owner avoided jail time for failing to turn over hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax, a decision from a Centre County judge aimed at allowing her to most effectively pay what she owes.

Little Szechuan owner Yean C. “Sharon” Ngan, 35, was sentenced Tuesday by Centre County President Judge Jonathan Grine to seven years of probation. She was ordered to pay nearly $580,000 in restitution to the state Revenue Department.

Pennsylvania prosecutors sought at least three months in jail for what they described as a gross mishandling of a business. Defense lawyer Adam Klein said he was “very happy with the decision” and thanked Grine for his consideration.

“What’s the ultimate goal here? That’s to have the defendant pay back what she owes,” Grine said before handing down his sentence. “This is a financial crime, so the court doesn’t really see any benefit outside of pure punishment to incarcerate her when she could be out with her family and running a business and hopefully paying those payments.”

Ngan failed to turn over the money during a five-year period. She also failed to file and pay tax returns intermittently between 2017 and 2022.

The Revenue Department consistently worked with Ngan to recoup the money, prosecutors wrote in a memo, but those efforts were futile. She pleaded guilty in September to one felony count of theft and two misdemeanors; three dozen charges were dropped.

Ngan apologized before she was sentenced, telling Grine she was under “a lot of stress.”

“I’m sorry this happened,” she said.

Ngan emigrated in 2005 from Malaysia with her extended family in hope of finding a better life in the United States, Klein wrote in a memo sent to Grine. She settled in State College with 10 family members.

Little Szechuan, which opened in 2016 at 228 W. College Ave., was the first restaurant she launched. It proved successful enough to provide for her immediate family — which includes four children — and other extended family members.

She then opened Tea-Time State College and took over Little Food Court, each of which closed in 2021. The latter was a “disastrous investment” and left her deeply in debt, Klein wrote.

“As is true of most businesses in State College, Ms. Ngan relies greatly upon the patronage of the Penn State student body. The pandemic, along with the various forced closures and dining restrictions imposed during that time frame, caused Little Szechuan to suffer immense losses and accelerated her inability to pay her taxes,” Klein wrote. “The failure of Tea-Time State College and Little College Food Court, along with the pandemic, decimated her finances and put her in a financial hole that she could not escape.”

Little Szechuan remains a thriving business, often considered one of the best Chinese restaurants in the area. It likely would have been forced to temporarily close if Grine opted to sentence Ngan to jail, Klein said during the hearing.

Jail time could be an option, however, if Ngan fails to pay what she owes, Grine said. It’s not yet known how much and how often payments must be made.

“It is her hope that she can continue to live the American dream of being the owner of a successful small business, and ultimately put this unfortunate situation behind her,” Klein wrote.