The cafe, which opened Aug. 8, 2008, has had its fair share of struggles.
METROWEST – When Achilles “Ash” Popal opened the doors to his coffee shop in August 2008 in MetroWest, he wanted to make sure everything was perfect for his first impression.
But the morning he opened his business, he realized he forgot something critical: how to make coffee.
“It was so bad,” Popal said, laughing. “I knew that the first impression had to be right. So everything was picture perfect. But the day I was opening the cafe, I realized, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t learn how to make coffee or lattes.’ So I printed out the instructions on how to make a basic latte and cappuccino from Google. So when people ordered it, I would look at the instructions to see how to do it. And that’s how it started.”
Fast forward a few years, and his coffee shop, named Achilles Art Cafe, is a popular venue with its own unique style. It serves everything from smoothies, tea, beer, wine, sandwiches, appetizers, baked goods and coffee — coffee that Popal proudly claims is the best in MetroWest.
And with 241 reviews on Google granting the cafe a 4.6 rating and 131 five-star ratings on Yelp, he might not be wrong. But the popular cafe, which locals describe as a hidden gem, has gone through its share of struggles.
When Popal, who was born and raised in Germany, moved in October 1999 to Florida to pursue the American Dream, he had $23 in his pocket. He didn’t know any English except for the word for “pen” and the phrase, “My name is Achilles.” But he didn’t let that stop him.
He took a three-month English course and lived with a host family during that time. Later, he found work in the hotel industry in Fort Lauderdale and saved up to buy a house in MetroWest.
Despite not having any culinary experience, he clung to his dream of one day opening his own cafe — a cafe inspired by one he would visit in Hamburg, Germany.
“In Germany, I used to go to this cafe that only had a couple of stuff, but it was always good,” Popal said. “So I knew I wanted to have something like that. I never wanted to have a restaurant. I just wanted to have something that had a little bit of everything, like beer, wine, coffee, tea, hookah, sandwiches, smoothies — I wanted everyone to be able to find something here.”
After going through a 10-month process with the city of Orlando to receive all the required permits, he finally opened his business — as everyone else was closing. When he opened in 2008, it was the start of the recession. To pull through the sudden economic downturn, he worked hard and managed everything himself.
“For a couple of years, I worked everything by myself — the front and the back,” Popal recalled. “And I used to have sandwiches brought here from other companies, but then I decided I just wanted to make them myself to make sure they were fresh. And I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. I like giving a good presentation. I don’t like sad-looking lettuce hanging there.”
As economic conditions improved, he hired six employees. He now makes everything from scratch to ensure the quality is top-notch, he said. But, despite all the hard work he put into his cafe, he never expected it to become this successful.
“A lot of people always said it’s about location, location, location, but as you can see, this location is not the greatest location,” Popal said. “This is the corner of the corner of the corner of MetroWest. I have no idea where all these people come from. I’ve never spent a dime on advertising or any of that stuff.”
It was the support of his customers who helped make sure he stayed in business when a fire destroyed the cafe in December 2016 — only two days after Christmas. The fire claimed everything, including his will to continue the business, he said.
“Literally everything was destroyed — everything,” he said. “The couches. The tables. The walls were covered with soot, which had been covered by water. And I just couldn’t handle it. I didn’t think I would be open again because it looked really bad.”
However, his fortunes changed when an employee offered to set up a GoFundMe to raise funds for the needed repairs. The GoFundMe, which asked for $10,000, raised $4,000 in a day, he said. They reached their goal shortly thereafter, and Popal felt he owed it to everyone who donated money to try yet again.
Achilles Art Cafe is now, once again, a popular hangout spot for locals and students from nearby Valencia College. Patrons often are impressed by the colorful decor and food, Popal said.
The work of about 25 to 30 local artists adorns the walls. He invites artists to display their artwork and include their name, phone number and asking price on the back of their canvas for anyone interested in buying the art. It’s a good deal, he added, as it helps the artists get recognized and adds to the artsy vibes and homey feeling of his cafe.
“One thing that always bothered me about some places was that they all had the same decorations,” he said. “All the tables and the seats were the same. Sometimes, they ask you, ‘Where you would like to sit?’ But I think, ‘Well, it all looks the same, so what does it matter?’ So I thought I should make it all different. Everybody finds their own little spot that makes them comfortable here. Some people like couches, others like the tables, some prefer the corner. But I want to make sure it has a homey feeling. Like you’ve walked into someone’s living room. I want everyone to feel welcome.”