This month's "Business Spotlight" is Paul Ortiz and his team at Portal West Coffee. 

How did you get started? What made you want to start a business?

Paul: I wanted to be in coffee, didn't know it would be in Akron. Coming back to Akron, I first needed to see how attractive it would be. I didn't have much faith in Akron given the way it was when I left. It seemed like a good time to move home. I always had the idea for a "community cafe", and it turned out better than I could have imagined. I didn't want to work for anyone else, I would rather risk it all to do what I wanted to do. A big justification for my business plan was that there were no coffee shops within ten to fifteen minutes from the Valley. I wanted to get in before the chains came in. There are more human elements that go into small, independent coffee shops than in big operations. Coffee is one of those things you can still shop local. There's more space in Akron for specialty coffee shops. There's not enough of them. Plenty of room for more creativity, styles of coffee. The market is underserved. 

How long have you been in business? 

Paul: Just turned one November 2023. 

If you could go back to the beginning, what would you tell yourself? 

Paul: Be more organized. It would have been nice to have been able to apply for grants or other available funds. I didn't qualify for commercial loans, and it was tough to get any kind of help outside of family. 

From your perspective, what is the business climate like in Akron? 

Paul: I can speak for the Valley, and for coffee, and both are good. Not a lot of specialty coffee shops around so it's been good. Offering a different aesthetic helps. We are trying to bring awareness that it's OK to open on Sundays and Mondays in Akron. We need to give people something to do on the weekends. We are lucky to have the parks nearby, and really lucky to be in the Valley. We want to be a cheerleader for the MetroParks and the renovation of the Valley. Both will bring more business to the area and make it a destination locally. Big cities have all these cool things, why can't we? We can have the same cool businesses and places to go. I remember the Valley used to smell, and when I told my friends we were opening in the Valley it was the first thing they remembered too. But it's much better now. I don't know what they did but it is much better. 

Thinking about Merriman Valley, what would you like to see for the neighborhood?

Paul: Connectivity without having to drive a car. We have the Towpath, but you can only use it from Akron. We need more trail access to other neighborhoods and communities. Better bike access to the Valley beyond the Towpath would also help. I know it's early on in the Valley renovation, but a resurgence is happening. It will take time, but in the next five-to-ten years it will be amazing. I would like to see more signage promoting the Valley. Gateway signage like arches, making sure you know you are in the Valley now. Within the district, more wayfinding to know where the river is and how to get to it. Akron was just supposed to be a launching pad for the next place I was going to live, but I was inspired to bring a positive, cool business to Akron. People are moving back to Akron because of the upward mobility, good schools, low crime. It's a good place to live. 

What is your favorite thing about your business?

Paul: Just the people. My team. The community that gets to come in every day. I have to pinch myself sometimes thinking, "how did we do this?" It's not a brilliant idea, we just want to be nice to our customers. It makes you feel good to ask people how their day is. I felt that customer service was missing from other places I went in Akron, a lack of hospitality. Even though that's what we're known for in the Midwest. I want to raise the bar around how we should be to one another.  We are here for the community. We are here because of the community. 

Portal West Coffee is located at 1690 Merriman Road, Akron, 44313. They are open M-W, 6:30am-3pm, Th & F, 6:30am-6pm, Sa & Su, 8am-6pm.