Success & Impact

Bringing Central American Food and Culture to Philly

MBA alumna Sofia Deleon’s culinary journey from Guatemala to the heart of Philly's food scene recently earned her the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 Excelencia in Hispanic Business Accelerate Award.

Sofia Deleon at her restaurant, El Merkury

Photo credit: Will Blunt / Star Chefs

by Luke Malanga '20

In the vibrant landscape of Philadelphia's culinary scene, Sofia Deleon, MBA '17, stands out as a beacon of Central American culture and entrepreneurial spirit.

A Guatemalan native and alumna of Saint Joseph’s University’s food marketing MBA program, Deleon founded El Merkury in 2017, aiming to bridge a cultural gap and shed a positive light on Central American countries amid a changing political climate. 

From its humble beginnings as an online catering company, El Merkury has blossomed into a thriving business with storefronts in Rittenhouse Square and Reading Terminal Market. Three months after opening they were awarded Best of Philly's Best Fast Casual

Deleon’s entrepreneurial journey came with the decision to take a leap of faith into becoming a restaurateur. 

"I moved here for college initially, with the goal of becoming an executive in the food industry. I thought I would climb the ladder and eventually open a restaurant,” recalls Deleon.

However, during her MBA at St. Joe's, Deleon shifted her ambitions. "I could not see myself working in corporate anymore. I did not want to be an executive. I just wanted to start my own thing," she says.

A changing political landscape fueled Deleon's determination to create a space that featured the rich culinary traditions of Central American countries. 

"I wanted to showcase the small countries of Central America that had so much to offer but often had a bad rap in the media," she explains.

In 2018, Deleon quit her corporate job and started with pop-ups and catering to prove the concept of her Central American street food. She designed the menu to make Central American cuisine more approachable, opting for a fast-casual model to reach a broader audience. The unique spin on traditional dishes includes pupusas, taquitos and churro sundaes. 

Deleon also launched a brand of rum, Tenango, inspired by the women of Guatemala. The bottle covers are handwoven by female artisans in Guatemala — central to her mission in providing sustainable income for the next generation of Guatemalan women.

Opening a restaurant without prior experience posed its challenges. Deleon admits, "I had never opened a restaurant before, nor had I actually worked in one." 

Reflecting on her MBA experience, Deleon highlights its impact on her business acumen.

"A lot of people who were part of the program were in CPG (consumer packaged goods), and that definitely helped with dealing with distributors, placing a product and understanding the multiple tiers behind making decisions," she says.


Sofia was passionate about bringing her Guatemalan culture and cuisine to the area through her restaurant. She underscored the value of creating a strategic business plan with materials she had gained through her MBA program.

Kathleen Klarich

Program Manager of Graduate Business Advising

Soon after El Merkury found a physical home on 21st and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, the coronavirus pandemic shut down all in-person dining. El Merkury became one of the first to embrace the concept of “ghost kitchens.” Deleon and her team strategically devised plans for takeout and delivery services — partnering with another restaurant to deliver family-style meals to Philadelphia suburbs.

At that time, she also came together with other female restaurateurs and joined as co-chair of the Sisterly Love Collective — providing mentorship to women food entrepreneurs in Philadelphia. 

“The classes and the network at St. Joe's were really helpful for me to be able to advise women with brands that are starting out,” says Deleon. “I’ve provided mentorship on distribution and placement in stores — all of those things I learned at St. Joe's. It was those classes and those connections that definitely helped me to be able to now help and support women who are starting out in CPG.”

Deleon also joined the Accelerate Latinx program with the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GPHCC). It was through the Chamber that Sofia connected with Joe McDonald, director of corporate and Industry Partnerships at the Haub School of Business.

McDonald and Kathleen Klarich, program manager of graduate business advising who advised Deleon as a student, met with Deleon in her restaurant in early 2020. 

“Sofia was passionate about bringing her Guatemalan culture and cuisine to the area through her restaurant,” says Klarich. “She underscored the value of creating a strategic business plan with materials she had gained through her MBA program.”

Earlier this month, Deleon was honored at the Excelencia in Hispanic Business Awards Reception hosted by the GPHCC. Winning an award from the chamber was a significant moment for Deleon, affirming the value of her hard work and dedication to El Merkury.

McDonald attended the event where the GPHCC honored Deleon with the “Accelerate Award.”

“Sofia's business growth was highlighted for its inclusion of food carts, coffee subscription service and rum,” says McDonald. “She was introduced as one who ‘exemplifies the creativity, ambition, strategy and execution that is critical in scaling a business.’”

For Deleon, although she decided not to climb the corporate ladder in the food industry, she finds herself making business decisions about her restaurant every day. She also has found a community in Philadelphia that supports her ambitions.

“The MBA program was a wonderful experience — the professors were so great and everybody was so easy to connect with,” says Deleon. “St. Joe's definitely helped determine where I ended up, so I'm very grateful for that.”