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Tenango Rum’s Sofia Deleon Is Empowering Female Artisans in Guatemala With a Living Wage

Tenango Rum’s Sofia Deleon Is Empowering Female Artisans in Guatemala With a Living Wage

Sofia Deleon | Photo Credit: Tenango Rum

You’ve heard of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but have you ever heard of Sofia & Josés ice cream? Probably not. The short-lived business venture was the effort of an enterprising young girl in Guatemala. Sofia Deleon was 14 when her brother José gave her an ice cream machine and she started selling ice cream at school, choosing the name because “if Ben & Jerry could do it, why couldn’t I?”. The school quickly shut the fledgling business down, but her first foray into food and hospitality would not be her last.

Today, Deleon owns El Merkury (which she says is broken Spanish for “the market”), a Central American street-food-focused small chain of restaurants in Philadelphia. The primary location is a stand-alone space on Chestnut Street in Center City West. A second location is in the historic Reading Terminal Market. 

“I was born and raised in Guatemala, and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents,” says Deleon. “My grandma always cooked from scratch. Nothing came from a can. Growing up, I loved making food.”

She did some catering and made food for friends and family, but Deleon knew that, although she wanted a career in food, she did not want to be a chef. She came to the U.S. for school, eventually graduating from Saint Joseph’s University with an MBA in food marketing and took jobs at various food companies. 

“It was a time when there was a lot of hostility toward immigrants,” she says. “And I realized I wanted to have a bigger impact. I wanted to represent small countries in a positive light.”

So she returned to her roots of sharing a meal and chose to open a restaurant. At El Merkury—which opened in 2018—everything is made from scratch, just like her grandma taught her. The food comes from the culinary traditions of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. 

“My mission is changing how people see these small countries through food,” Deleon says.

She wants people to see past the corruption, cartels, and immigration issues that dominate the news, and show a different side of these countries—the culinary delights, the sugar cane, the coffee, and the colorful, multicultural customs and traditions of the people. 

El Merkury’s food is one way of doing that. Another way is through rum. 

Tenango Rum

Photo Credit: Tenango Rum

Deleon’s grandmother wasn’t the only matriarch to influence her. Her great-grandmother was one of Guatemala’s first female distillers 100 years ago. Deleon is now a distiller in her own right. She recently launched Tenango Rum, a Spanish-style sippable rum that may surprise those who see rum as just an ingredient in “tiki drinks,” as she puts it.

“I knew I wanted a rum for whiskey drinkers that could stand on its own or in a cocktail,” says Deleon. To create the rum, she turned to a large distillery in Guatemala that makes a great product and has quality control throughout its process. Because COVID-19 made it difficult to travel to Guatemala at the time, the distillery sent her batches to taste.

“It was the most difficult process,” she confesses. “How did I know I was choosing the perfect one?” 

In the end, she chose a batch that’s been well-received in Philadelphia, showing up on the bar shelves of some of the best restaurants and cocktail bars in the city. It’s crafted from 100% Guatemalan Grade A molasses, the byproduct of manufacturing sugar cane. Distilled in the traditional Spanish method on a column still and then aged in American White Oak Barrels, the single-source rum is packed with flavors of cocoa, banana, almond, tropical fruits, and butterscotch. 

Sustainable Income for Guatemalan Families

Tenango is hard to miss whether it’s on a store shelf or behind the bar at a restaurant. Each bottle is covered in a traditional Mayan sheath, woven on foot looms by a Guatemalan Kʼicheʼ Women’s Co-op. Kʼicheʼ are indigenous descendants of the Mayans. Previously a loosely coordinated group of people with foot looms, their association with Tenango allowed them to organize a cooperative that supports each other, sets work standards, and negotiates collectively.

Deleon’s family owned land in the department of Totonicapan in the western highland of Guatemala where the women live. Her grandpa and father were known for always supporting the community and had their trust. Because of the established relationship, her father approached a woman named Margarita, now the head of the women’s co-op, about creating the fabric for the colored sleeves for the rum bottles.  

“They were leery at first,” says Deleon. “But, they were convinced because we promised to give them their asking rate and allow them to set their working hours.” The women receive $2 a sleeve, which equates to about 20% more than they get from others who often haggle over the price of their work. The artisans can sell the scraps from the material left over from making the vibrant sleeves as stuffing for pillows and mattresses, giving them an additional source of income. 

Photo Credit: Tenango Rum

There are currently 25 families in the co-op, although the work is done only by the adults. As the Tenango brand grows, Deleon hopes to employ more families. If all goes as planned, the rum brand predicts it can create a sustainable income for 10,000 Guatemalan families by 2030. 

“I wanted to have packaging that would deliver,” says Deleon. A family friend designed the sleeves made by hand on 25-foot looms. The ancient Mayan weaving method is done by telar de pie, or foot-loom, and many of the looms now used to weave the fabric for Tenango’s sleeves had fallen into disuse. 

“The new generation doesn’t want to do this type of weaving so it’s in danger of becoming a lost art,” says Deleon. “It’s labor intensive and doesn’t pay well.” She can’t change the labor intensiveness of producing the handmade fabric, but she can offer the newer generation a sustainable income as an incentive for them to carry on the tradition of many generations.

The fabric is all cotton from Guatemala. Each family turns cotton into thread and dyes it with the colors needed to create the bottle sleeves. For the initial 7,200 bottle run of Tenango Rum, the 25 families in the co-op took 90 days to create 6,000 sheets of hand-woven fabric that became the striped sleeves. The second shipment of fabric is expected in July. 

“The families are now able to work full time,” says Deleon. “And they work hours that allow them to be with their family.” Those hours are 4 am to 1 pm, which is ideal for them and keeps the artisans—the majority of whom are women—from working in factories in poor conditions making cheap clothing. 

Philadelphia—The Right Place to Launch a Female-Owned Rum

“I want to see more women drinking rum. I want to see more women in spirits,” says Deleon. “That culture is fostered in Philadelphia where women in the restaurant business are powerhouses.”

During the pandemic, Deleon connected with some of those female powerhouses in the City of Brotherly Love to create Sisterly Love Collective, an “alliance of women across the Philadelphia region banding together to empower and advance women in the food and hospitality space through mentorship, networking, and communal support.” 

Along with such notables as Ellen Yin, the James Beard Foundation’s 2023 Outstanding Restaurateur and owner of High Street Hospitality Group, Jill Weber, the founder and owner of Sojourn Philly, and Top Shelf alum and restaurateur Jennifer Carroll, Deleon volunteers her time with the collective where females in the hospitality industry support each other.

This combination of female-empowered vitality in Philadelphia—along with the city’s thriving and creative cocktail scene embracing Tenango—has fostered Tenango’s early success. 

Currently, Tenango is on shelves only in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but the premium rum is available for $49.99 online and can ship to most states.