On 21st and Chestnut, there’s a little spot that serves up a ton of flavor.
The Central American street food and churro hotspot El Merkury has been open for two years, and it didn’t take long for this eatery to gain citywide recognition after launching. The concept came from Sofia Deleon, who moved to the States from Guatemala years ago and saw a need to start up a place that represented and could open up other people to her culture.
“I moved here from Guatemala 12-13 years ago, I initially moved here for college. I thought that I wanted to work in corporate for a while, but I ended up quitting my job with the changing political landscape. There was a lot of negativity towards Hispanics and immigrants and I wanted to change that and kind of put a positive spin or change the image of immigrants and Latinos. This [idea] kind of presented underrepresented countries that have a great food culture, and so El Merkury was born. I started out doing pop-ups, doing a virtual restaurant and doing catering mostly to prove the concept. Then, eventually we found this location and opened up in May on Cinco de Mayo of 2018. We are a Central American street food and churro bar/restaurant and caterer and for the most part, it’s $15 and under food. The lunch crowd, for example, was our main part of the business.”
The establishment has been able to adapt and grow over the course of its existence, and even has been able to navigate the pandemic situation quite successfully. It was only until the looting and riots that El Merkury had to close up shop for a short amount of time.
“We closed for maybe three days [during COVID-19] while I got everything together and figured out what it was that we were going to do. Within that week, we put together a new menu for meal delivery, and we started delivering larger packages to the suburbs and then we continued to do take-out,” says Deleon. “We were still open for take-out through our website and through Caviar and GrubHub, but then what actually made us close was the looting. We were looted during the protests and two of our windows were broken, it was kind of a mess. They [also] took our tablets for all of these ordering platforms, so we decided to take this moment and take this time to sort of reflect and just rest from the take-out orders.”
How the business was able to survive the pandemic which sparked such a precarious time causing so many food/beverage establishments to shut down was their work with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen. WCK was founded in 2010 by Chef Jose Garces, and its mission is to provide meals in the wake of natural disasters. The partnerships not only helped El Merkury stay afloat, it also helped the community in an immense time of need.
“We partnered with a few nonprofits and we’ve been making meals for healthcare workers and food-insecure communities through World Central Kitchen. We continued working with them, and they’re great, they’ve been the most amazing partners,” explains Deleon. “We make meals for Sunday Love Project, they basically feed a lot of homeless people in different parts of the city. They’re a really great organization and I think they’ve grown and we’ve helped them expand through this with World Central Kitchen. We’re making meals that normally would be $15 and making them for $10, but we’re still in business and still able to pay our bills and everyone is still employed so it’s been amazing. They are really great organizations.”
Through all of the navigations, El Merkury has been able to open back up fully again and has added outdoor seating to their establishment so that Philadelphians can enjoy the hotspot’s offerings on site. Safety of course is definitely a vital part of the establishment opening back up.
“Everybody has been wearing masks and gloves and all of the PPE, and then we’re working with our POS provider to develop a QR code that people can scan. Until then, people are going to be asked to pre-order whether if it’s on our website or through Caviar or Grubhub, and then for pick up just picking it up. So there are contactless ordering options that are possible, then you can take it and eat it outside,” says Deleon.
Deleon also had one announcement that she wanted to make sure was out there regarding the start of the restaurant’s outdoor dining, and it’s a sweet one.
El Merkury is known for many things, but probably the most popular edible treat to come out of the hotspot is their gourmet churros. Throughout COVID-19, the eatery has not been able to serve up their dessert creations to their fullest, but recently the popular menu items have made a comeback.
“We’re known for our churros, specifically for the churros with ice cream, and we haven’t made those at all throughout the pandemic. We’ve just been making mini churros, just plain cinnamon sugar churros,” says Deleon. “But we’re opening our ice cream machine and creating all of our gourmet churros, so that menu is going to be back up.”
To learn more about El Merkury (2104 Chestnut St.) or to place an order, visit elmerkury.com