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The Latina Entrepreneur Behind El Merkury


The town of Guatemala City is robust and rich in culture. Its unique food scene stretches back to Aztec and Mayan civilizations, when indigenious residents consumed cacao (chocolate), corn, and pepian, a traditional Guatemalan food.

Residents in Guatemala still use the traditional methods passed down from indigenious tribes when preparing the same food staples to this day. 

Nestled in Guatemala City is El Mercado Central, where locals and travelers come to buy Guatemalan dishes such as tostadas — a hard corn tortilla with beans, tomato sauce, garnished with onions, and queso fresco — among other specialties.

Philadelphia restaurant owner Sofia Deleon has many memories of her and her nana going to the same market in Guatemala City, where she was born and raised.

“I loved going to the market with my nana and going to the market and buying things for a recipe and using molcajete and making masa from scratch,” Deleon, now the owner of El Merkury, told AL DÍA News.

Deleon’s parents worked full-time, and her grandparents took care of her in the mornings until her parents picked her up in the late afternoon. While spending time with her nana, Deleon fell in love with cooking.

Eventually, a gift from her brother would spark the interest in crossing cooking with business.

An Ice Cream Business

At 16, her brother bought her an ice cream machine as a present. It also soon turned into a present for Deleon’s brother because she would always make him ice cream using different ingredients.

She eventually came up with the idea to sell her homemade ice cream at her school since there were only three different flavors of ice cream in Guatemala. 

“Guatemala is not like America where there are hundreds of different flavors and hundreds of different brands,” she said. “I would sell any kind of flavor of ice cream for me, it was basically like the Guatemalan version of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.”

Soon, Deleon was able to open a small catering operation with some family members. She found joy in cooking for people and loved connecting with different customers.

“I was hired for events and family gatherings, I would make food for friends and family, just small events,” said Deleon.

“I was hired for events and family gatherings, I would make food for friends and family, just small events,” said Deleon.

Her catering and ice cream business was her first taste of entrepreneurship. 

“I was making money, I really loved cooking and getting paid for it. I never thought that I would go to culinary school and just become a chef or anything like that,” she said.

Her initial plan was to live in the U.S and work on Wall Street.

“I would retire at 50 or 60 years old, I would just quit my job, and I would just open a restaurant, that was what I always thought,” said Deleon.

Instead the restaurant came first, and Philadelphia would be its home, with her as one of the city’s rising Latina entrepreneurs.

Churros are a traditional Hispanic dessert.   Harrison Brink

Showing a different Central America

When she was 17 years old, Deleon moved to the United States for college. She was accepted to Michigan State University, where she went for a degree in Food Management, wanting to do something food related.

After graduating from Michigan State, Deleon moved to California and worked for Kerrygold food distribution. The job took her to different places like Delaware and Miami before she settled in Pennsylvania and enrolled in an MBA program at St. Joseph’s University.

Things were going great for Deleon, however, the political divide in America would soon rear its head in her life and shine a light on the struggles of Latinos in the country.

It’s hard enough for a Latin Americans to become successful in America, however, it’s even more difficult for Latino immigrants to enter the United States without the already-present stigmas that surround Latinos in the country.

In 2016, President Donald Trump ignited flames when he directed vitriolic remarks at immigrants arriving from Mexico and Central America.

“Trump came into office and there was a lot of negativity amongst immigrants and Central Americans specifically ‘bad hombres’,” said Deleon.

She made it her duty to change people’s perception of Latino immigrants, and quit her corporate job and to dive head first into the food industry.

She made it her duty to change people’s perception of Latino immigrants, and quit her corporate job and to dive head first into the food industry.

“I didn’t want to think about what ifs. I don’t wanna look back and say, ‘What if I would have opened my own restaurant?’ You can’t turn back time,” said Deleon.

Deleon started by developing a number of pop ups in different parts of Philadelphia. She focused on what kind of foods her customers ordered and the levels of spiciness her customers were comfortable eating.

“Central American food is also not your typical burrito or quesadilla, it’s something traditional for us, but something that people in Philly probably never heard of, like a pupusa,” she said.

Deleon began cooking out of a ghost kitchen, provided by GrubHub at the Enterprise Center. She continued to work there for a year and a half until a former restaurant space was up for grabs at 21st and Chestnut streets.

“We got this place that was turnkey, it was a former restaurant,” said Deleon.

It was just the beginning of what has turned into a successful career.

Tostadas, plantain chips, and Deleon’s famous taquitos on display   Harrison Brink

Getting Family Support

“Once you decide to go into the restaurant business there is no glamour, it looks shiny maybe from the inside but if anyone calls out then get ready to be a line cook or a dishwasher,” said Deleon.

Her parents were shocked to find out she quit her job and opened a restaurant.

“‘What were you thinking? You have an MBA and now you’re gonna go and sell pupusas?” Deleon remembers her parents’ first reaction.

However, they eventually accepted the reality of their daughter’s new found business. Over time, her parents came to understand the importance of her new venture and encouraged her to follow her dreams. 

Where is Central American cuisine?

There are many Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican restaurants in Philadelphia, but when it comes to Guatemalan, Salvadorean, or Honduran cuisine, the lack of pupusas, tostadas, and pepián translate to the lack of cultural diversity in the city.

It’s something Deleon had trouble finding even outside of Philadelphia.

“I used to go to NYC a lot and there were not a lot of Guatemalan restaurants even though there is a decent Guatemalan population in New York,” she said. “To be honest I would have found it stranger if I would have found Guatemalan food in Philly than New York. I definitely saw that there was a need or a lack of Latin American variety.”

And so, El Merkury became that key element of Latin American cuisine in Rittenhouse Square, a location in Philly not usually known for thriving Latino-owned businesses.

However, Deleon’s mother, Lucrecia, advised her to focus on two main food staples: churros and chocolate.

“Because my mom loves churros and chocolate is a very traditional thing in Latin America and there are so many little kiosks everywhere, it’s amazing there wasn’t anything like that in America,” said Deleon.

Churros are a type of fried dough that originated from Spain. They are typically coated with cinnamon and sugar.

“We have churros; it would help with foot traffic,” said Deleon. “I wanted to have dessert so we can have more opportunities for people to come in and get a treat with their family.”

As expected, the churros were a big hit.

“I added churros and ice cream because churros are my mother’s favorite and I love ice cream, just the cold and warmth of both foods is very good,” she said.

Customers also loved Deleon’s idea to add churros and ice cream to her menu, and soon lined up to try the crunchy, cold snack.

“We have a churros tres leches and then we have the meringue that is torched on top,” she said.

On April 16, Deleon opened her second space at the Reading Terminal. With it, she is putting pupusas on the map in the city’s most-famed place to get a bite to eat

“I have my pupuseras, so the women that come and make pupusas homemade all by hand,” she said.

Everything from the slaw, the pickled onions, the salsa, and the chicharones inside the pupusas is made from scratch. Her method of making pupusas is different, said Deleon, instead of deep frying them, they are grilled to perfection.

“I definitely don’t want people to feel like they can’t walk,” said Deleon. “I try to make it a little bit lighter.”

The success of her two businesses is just the beginning for Deleon.   Harrison Brink

Deleon’s future plans

In the end, Deleon loves to eat. However, people may be surprised to learn her favorite foods are not Guatemalan. 

“My favorite food is actually Korean,” she said.

She went on a trip to Seoul, South Korea where she fell in love with its people and cuisine.

“South Korea was the most amazing place,’’ said Deleon. “Whenever I have the chance to go for kimchi and bibimbap, I go for it.”

“South Korea was the most amazing place,’’ said Deleon. “Whenever I have the chance to go for kimchi and bibimbap, I go for it.”

When Deleon isn’t running her restaurants, she donates meals to Seamaac and Sunday LOVE Project three times a week.

“We make foods that are very traditional, not food that we sell at the restaurant, food that you would find at abuelas kitchens, it’s important for us to make a meal that is comforting and hearty for them,” she said.

El Merkury is one of the most successful Central American restaurants in Philadelphia. Deleon was determined to change the perception of Central American immigrants, and she did.

Her hope is for future Latinos to not be ashamed of where they come from, to embrace it, and show others how important it is to learn about other cultures and identities.

“If you are passionate about it then people will realize it and customers will come,” she said. “Don’t give up, always keep going.”

Deleon is now working on a plan to bring churros to the Jersey Shore by next year.

She will also launch a frozen pupusa line and her own liquor brand.

Whether you visit Deleon’s Rittenhouse Square location or El Merkury at the Reading Terminal, Guatemalan street food is here to stay in Philly. 



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