Sofia De Leon of El Merkury
Sofia De Leon is AL DÍA's 2023 Top Restaurateur to be honored at its upcoming Top Entrepreneur Forum and Reception on Feb. 24, 2023. Photo: German Vazquez.

Five years on, Sofia De Leon says El Merkury has put Central American food on the map in Philly

The Top Restaurateur winner at AL DÍA’s upcoming Top Entrepreneurs Forum and Reception dished on the business’ progress and her future as an entrepreneur.


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Sofia De Leon always had big dreams for El Merkury when she launched the fast casual spot on Chestnut Street in 2018.

“I envisioned El Merkury as, maybe not the next Chipotle, but a growing chain of Central American food that would highlight these street foods that most people had never heard of,” she recently told AL DÍA as the newly-minted Top Restaurateur set to be awarded at AL DÍA’s upcoming Top Entrepreneurs Forum and Reception on Feb. 24.

These days, five years on from El Merkury’s flagship opening on Chestnut, De Leon splits her time between there and the company’s other location within the historic halls Reading Terminal Market — where she opened a new spot in April 2021.

Changing the Central American food narrative

Armed with pupusas, tostadas, churros and taquitos, De Leon — a native of Guatemala — still fights against the ‘Mexican’ label often slapped on any food from south of the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Every day was and actually continues to be a learning opportunity,” she said, for both her staff and the customers that dine at El Merkury.

But it has changed in the last five years according to De Leon, especially in the Rittenhouse neighborhood that El Merkury’s first location calls home.

“I really want to believe that we have played a big part in that,” she said.

Beyond her own Central American fast casual spot, De Leon also cited examples of other Latino-owned restaurants that have opened in the last five years from all across Latin America and also seen success defining themselves outside the ‘Mexican’ bucket. 

For her own and their success, De Leon gave the credit to city residents that are always down to try something new, especially with food.

“Philadelphians are very supportive of local communities,” she said. “I would say they’re pretty open to wanting to learn.”

In Rittenhouse, that’s been built by a clientele that works predominantly in the high rises of Center City or on the state-of-the-art campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

“These are people that have no connection probably to Guatemala, had never eaten a pupusa in their life and now they loved it so much that they have to have it every week,” said De Leon.

Going global at Reading Terminal

When El Merkury expanded to Reading Terminal in 2021, that audience for pupusas, tostadas and more expanded globally. Now, it wasn’t just Philadelphia locals, but whatever tourist decides to go to the market for a one-of-a-kind experience on their visit to Philadelphia.

De Leon admitted to once being one of those tourists with her parents, and Reading Terminal has been a “dream” ever since. While City Hall and the Liberty Bell gave a young De Leon history, it was the market that provided the color, culture and atmosphere to remember about the city. She admits it was the only thing she did remember on her family’s Philly trip.

To finally get a booth for El Merkury was “so rewarding.”

“Here’s this little Guatemalan girl having a spot in the most historical market in America,” De Leon reflected.

The importance of networking

Outside of the physical expansion of the business, De Leon has also put in some major leg work to expand her professional network both within Philadelphia and across the U.S., and it’s done wonders for El Merkury.

In the first two years of business, Deleon said it was spent mainly at the Chestnut Street location “from open to close.” It was a good thing because she was building a foundation for the business and training workers, but with little connections outside her staff and customers, De Leon was left grasping for air when she needed help or advice on growth.

It was then she realized she needed to start reaching out and applying for grants. She began as part of the Accelerate Latinx program with the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

There, De Leon met other Latino business owners in the region who she could bounce ideas and questions off of, and got guidance from the chamber itself. Some, she still keeps in contact with to this day. 

“At the end of the day, we were all dealing with the same problems with the same rewards,” De Leon said of the experience.

On top of that, she also named GPHCC Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez as one of the mentors she’s picked up on her entrepreneurial journey.

Her second big networking break came nationally, when she took part in the 10-week Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program from the James Beard Foundation.

“That was huge for me,” said De Leon, who went on to compare the weight of the James Beard Foundation in food service to that of “the Oscars” in movies.

On the networking side, she was also connected with women leaders at restaurants across the country.

“We’re all in the same boat, putting out fires, dealing with the same shit,” said De Leon.

She also said it’s nice “to know people in different places,” and can now go to a number of different U.S. cities to visit those in the same James Beard network.

Outside of food, De Leon also named the Tory Burch Foundation as helping her expand her women leadership network nationally. 

On the local level, she’s done so as part of the Sisterly Love Collective alongside fellow Philadelphia restaurateurs Ellen Yin, Jill Weber and Jennifer Carroll. The collective’s goal is to change the narrative of Philadelphia as just the City of Brotherly Love and include Sisterly Affection as part of the conversation. They do so through their food and that of the 100+ women restaurateur members.

“Philadelphia is not just a city of cheesesteaks and pretzels,” said De Leon. “It’s also a city of banh mis and pupusas, and tacos and churros.”

El Merkury’s future

When AL DÍA first profiled De Leon and El Merkury back in August 2021, she also spilled on a number of future plans for El Merkury and other business ventures. 

For one, she’s finally received mobile carts to take the company on the road and be present at a number of different events and pop-ups — the plan was initially to go to the Jersey Shore, but that became too complicated.

De Leon also mentioned creating El Merkury’s own line of frozen pupusas — and even designed some packaging — but that project was also put on hold as a new passion project emerged from COVID-19.

Respecting rum

That project is her own Guatemalan rum brand, which she hopes to launch in April of this year.

The story there has roots, as De Leon’s great-great grandmother was one of the first people in Guatemala to distill cusha, a fermented sugarcane drink that is the predecessor to rum. When Guatemala’s last dictator came into power, he took her great-great grandmother’s land and gave it to political allies, effectively ending her business.

Generations later, De Leon has built a relationship with the current landowners, who will be distilling the rum she plans to unveil soon in the States. She is also partnering with women in a nearby village and paying them to quilt covers for every bottle.

After two years of work, it is not a rum to be associated with the sugary, hangover-laden drinks common at college parties, but more of an homage to how her country treats the spirit.

“In Guatemala, we grow up with rum,” said De Leon.

Much like tequila and mezcal have seen glow ups in the last decade with more expensive, artisanal brands, she wants to do the same with rum in a much less saturated side of the spirit market.

The AL DÍA Top Restaurateur of 2023

When De Leon learned she was an AL DÍA Top Entrepreneur, she said she felt “seen.”

“We forget everyone notices,” De Leon said of the work she and other entrepreneurs do day in and day out to support their enterprises and grow. “To me, it’s like I’ve been doing something right.”

For advice, De Leon says if you believe in yourself, “go for it.” As someone in the volatile food service industry and about to enter spirits, she’s heard plenty of stories about the perils of doing business on your own

“I am so happy I did it,” she said. “Sometimes you have to think: is it worth it to me so that I’m gonna regret not doing 10 years from now?”

If the answer is yes, take her advice.


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