LAKEWOOD RANCH -- If you live in Manatee County, most likely you know the name Popi's Place. It's the closest thing to diners owned by Greek immigrants that have flourished up and down the East Coast in large cities like New York, serving hearty American food with a Greek flair.
Popi's Place has made its mark here, and now the latest of seven Popi's Place restaurants, which recently opened just off State Road 70 in the River Club Plaza shopping center next to retail giant Walmart, is becoming a choice place to eat.
Since its soft opening Jan. 27, Popi's Place on The Ranch has become a place for working professionals looking for a fast dining option, to families with small children, retirees, students from the nearby dental school, area home builders, and anyone else passing through and curious about the stores and restaurants in the new shopping center.
Popi's Place on The Ranch held its grand opening Friday afternoon, attended by priests at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Saraso
ta, who gave the restaurant a blessing; the Manatee Chamber of Commerce; Manatee County and school board officials; the mayors of Bradenton and Palmetto, and even Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, who reportedly patronizes Popi's Place on the Ranch at least three or four times a week with his family.
"We've got a new system in place, and our growing pains are over. We wanted everything to be 100 percent, and now we're ready and raring to go," said 38-year-old Andy Ameres, the second son of the family who previously managed the Ellenton restaurant.
This second-generation Greek son still works side by side with his mother, Kalioppi "Popi" Ameres, who started the Bradenton-based family restaurant chain in 1975 when she and her husband moved to Florida from Cleveland, where they managed the popular Brown Derby restaurants. Even Ameres' wife, Kali, who is eight months' pregnant and expecting their first baby, a boy, faithfully comes every day to lend a hand.
Ameres calls the move to Lakewood Ranch next door to Walmart a "no-brainer," since the name alone is a great anchor for his business. And the manager of Walmart has stopped by to personally thank him and his restaurant for drawing in more business.
Many of the staff now employed at Popi's Place on The Ranch have worked in other Popi's restaurants and are enjoying their new digs at the Lakewood Ranch location.
Debbie Farmer, a six-year staffer who worked with Ameres in Ellenton, said she had to follow him because she thinks of him like a little brother."They're a lovely family. My brother who was a policeman knew them for years. This is a working crowd, and they're tipping well here," she said.
Popi's Place on The Ranch offers the same menu items as the other locations, but the specials, like ranch burgers and hickory ranch chicken, give it a personal touch.
"Our portions are huge, and everything is made daily. The quality and the price are right," added Ameres.
Fellow restaurateur Mike Valentino, who owns Valentino Pizzeria Trattoria in Sarasota, stopped by on grand opening day to have a hearty breakfast with his wife and friend.
"The food is good. It's much like the breakfast they serve in New Jersey with that same diner feel. There's not many people doing what Popi does for breakfast, especially being so new," said Valentino, a native of New Jersey who resides in Sarasota.
Jaci Schuyler, a second-year dental student from nearby LECOM School of Dental Medicine, enjoyed her breakfast along with fellow students who happened to catch a break in between classes.
"There's not a whole lot of places to eat close to school, so this is perfect since we only get an hour for lunch."
Ameres says the family has plans to expand south to Venice and north to Riverview in Hillsborough County, where they already have a successful Popi's Place in Ruskin.
Besides being religious, Ameres' mother, "Popi" says, of course, hard work has led to the family success.
"But always try and don't give up," she said. "Hard work will pay off."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.