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Cautious Optimism From A Pandemic Pivot To Family-Style Fast-Casual Guatemalan

COVID halted plans for a restaurant expansion, but the proposed menu proved a hit in lockdown.

Sofia Deleon is co-founder and co-owner of El Merkury in Philadelphia.

I’m originally from Guatemala, born and raised. I grew up cooking. I had a catering company when I was little. I sold ice cream in school. I always thought I was going to end up in food service eventually—I just didn’t really know when. I moved to the United States for college, and I worked on the corporate side of food, and I always had in the back of my mind that eventually I would open up a restaurant.

Three and a half years ago, I was doing an MBA. I was not very happy with my job. The political landscape was changing, and there was a lot of negativity towards “bad hombres” and Central American people and immigrants. So I decided to quit my job and just represent Guatemala, and try to shine a positive light on countries that have a really great food culture. I chose to do it in a fast-casual way so that we could reach more people.

I started with pop-ups. I would set up in different offices, bring in different menus, and then tailor the menus based on feedback. I started off using serrano chilis, for example, which are really, really spicy. That helped me realize that I cannot use some ingredients unless I’m dealing with a very adventurous eater. Then I did catering. I worked out of a commissary kitchen where I set up with GrubHub and Seamless. Maybe I needed to have a bigger following for that to be really profitable, but it was definitely a learning experience.

Then I found this turnkey brick-and-mortar space, which used to be a Mediterranean restaurant. I partnered with a friend from school, and we opened El Merkury in May of 2018.

Photo: Courtesy Sofia Deleon.

There’s actually not a lot of Central American people in Philadelphia. But I wanted to reach a larger target market. There’s a small number of Central American people here looking for food from home, but the majority of my customers are not Hispanic. They’re white families from the area, students, vegans and vegetarians, and people with celiac disease—because a lot of our food is gluten-free, since it’s corn-based.

For the last two years, the lunch rush was our bread and butter. We’re in a central location in Philly—in Rittenhouse Square very close to Market Street. We did a very good lunch business. We did a lot of catering for students at the University of Pennsylvania and for the offices. And we do a lot of churros. Half of our menu is churros. We started doing churro bars for weddings. It’s been pretty popular. We were going to do six weddings this year, and then COVID happened and everything disappeared.

Right at lockdown, we were in the process of opening a second location that was supposed to be more of a take-home meal operation—like, frozen pupusas ready for people to take home and heat up, plus meats by the pound, salads by the pound. That actually was really helpful, because instead of opening that second location, we started offering that menu at our first location. It was more in line with what people were looking for, since everybody was working from home and eating at home. We partnered with another restaurant and started doing meal kits and foods for the home, and we started delivering them in the suburbs. That worked well. We’re still doing food by the dozen and by the quart.

Photo: Courtesy Sofia Deleon.

We partnered with Off Their Plate and started bringing meals to frontline workers. Then we partnered with World Central Kitchen. Then we started doing meals for the Sunday Love Project, an operation out of Kensington, in North Philly, and they feed thousands of homeless people. Thanks to World Central Kitchen, we’ve made meals at a lower price than what we would normally charge, but they are volume, so that’s kept us busy. It’s been really a blessing. We never closed. We never laid anybody off. In fact, we hired two new people.

We had outside seating before, but we’ve expanded it since the pandemic. We just recently opened it up, and people can order contactless with a QR code. What I’m worried about right now is the winter months when nobody goes out and there’s no outside dining.

Since we started doing delivery on our own in addition to these other platforms, I found that people who ordered family meals really liked it, and they continued ordering them. That seems almost like a proof of concept for that second location we were doing. A lot of places have unfortunately closed or downsized in the pandemic, so there are other restaurant spaces opening up. That might work in our favor if we do decide to move forward on our second location.

Photo: Courtesy Sofia Deleon.

Something I’d like to see from the government is financial support for restaurants to continue the work that nonprofits like WCK and Off Their Plate have been doing. Food insecurity will continue to be a problem, especially as we get to winter months. Restaurants can help by using our already available resources and having the government pay for it.

I’m trying to put together a plan for franchising. I’m also working on the retail line, because even if there’s another pandemic, people are still going to eat and buy groceries. That’s maybe more sustainable in the longer term, and there could be growth there. We have a very big basement where we’re not at capacity right now. Maybe that’s the future. Trying to decide where to focus is the hardest part.