Evelyn Fong and Martha Ruiz de la Pena. Photo by Kate Selig.

Five is a lucky number in China, where Evelyn Fong’s mother was born. So when it came time to name a business, Fong had her name: Five Markets.

“And we added the ‘s’ to market to make it plural,” explained Fong’s wife and co-owner, Martha Ruiz de la Peña. 

Luck in business hasn’t necessarily followed for the organic grocery store on 24th Street: In its past eight years of operation, Five Markets has seen its business cycle through periods of growth and decline, impacted by everything from changing neighborhood demographics to Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods to the pandemic.

But serendipity has defined their personal life. 

Ruiz de la Peña and Fong met two decades ago at a video store in the city where Fong worked and Ruiz de la Peña, a connoisseur of foreign films, dropped in and stayed to discuss the films she had watched.

They’ve been inseparable since, and have two children, aged 15 and 18: “They’re smart, A+ students, I’ve never seen a B,” Ruiz de la Peña said. “It’s incredible.”

They decided to start the business in 2013, after Ruiz de la Peña left her job at Rainbow Grocery in, a co-op in the Mission on Folsom Street. Even though Rainbow is worker-owned, Ruiz de la Peña found the co-op structure frustrating. Adding a new product or putting cameras in the store could prompt a board meeting, which became a stage for opinions, Ruiz de la Peña said. 

At Five Markets, they control what products they decide to stock, keeping out companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. in favor of smaller suppliers and local businesses. For instance, they sell coffee from Ubuntu, a small coffee roasting company in Emeryville.

Ubuntu, a traditional African concept, means “If you’re good, I’m good. If you grow, I grow. Whatever we do together, we’re going to make it better,” according to Ruiz de la Peña. 

Ubuntu built a coffee setup and provided the machine to Five Markets, and someone comes every week to deliver coffee and take back what didn’t sell.

They keep prices in the store comparable to those at big-box stores and Amazon and, in some cases, even beat them. Fong’s mother owns the building, keeping the rent low, but if the rents were higher, Ruiz de la Peña says keeping the prices down would be impossible.

Amazon and other delivery startups like GoodEggs and Instacart are a threat to Five Markets, which doesn’t have the manpower to deliver or the financial flexibility to offer the steep up-front discounts well-funded startups can.

To stay afloat, they depend on local support.

“If locals are buying everything from Amazon, and complain ‘Oh, I used to love that store’ when one shuts down, it’s because they never helped,” Ruiz de la Peña said. “How many times did you go there to buy things?

Perhaps, however, five is a lucky number. They’ve seen a recent increase in business after the ficus trees on 24th Street came down, shining light on the small store tucked between a park and a Chinese restaurant. And, they had a single-day bump in traffic after Mayor London Breed challenged San Franciscans to shop only small businesses in the month of May.

“Please tell London Breed to keep telling people to support the local business,” Ruiz de la Peña said.

But Ruiz de la Peña said she cannot predict the future of the business, though Fong is hopeful that it will be able to survive. Either way, the two will have each other.

“We are very compatible,” Ruiz de la Peña said with a laugh. “We don’t fight, we just talk.”

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Kate Selig

Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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8 Comments

  1. Love this store. Evelyn and Marta provide great service and a great variety of items. Glad to see them highlighted here.

  2. Great to read about POC woman owned business in the City.
    We all need more of these pieces about minority businesses.
    Positive all around..

  3. Five Markets grocery is a life saver in the Mission. I absolutely love having this small healthy grocery store here in the neighborhood. I go all the time. I have gone to Five Markets since they opened up 8 years ago. (I used to go the video store as well and rent awesome foreign videos. And, I also loved being able to use their USPS mail service counter to send out packages out of the back of the video store. The video store rocked as well!)

    Marta and Evelyn are the most adorable couple ever, and they always offer a warm welcome when I come into Five Markets, and they take the time to say hello and chit chat. They are good people who are genuine and work hard and care about the neighborhood and it’s residents. It feels like family going to Five Markets.

    Mission folks- please don’t sleep on this one. Go out and support your neighborhood and make friends with people who live here, and work here, and raise their families here. Make connections with the people who provide your food. Please don’t forget or overlook the many small businesses and lovely people who run them so close to your home. Write a support “local businesses day” into your weekly calendar if you need to, and go shopping and buy some local goodies. Buy some produce on 24th street from the different venders, buy some eggs and bread from Five Markets, buy your sweetie some flowers from the flower lady on 24th and Bryant, buy some fresh made tortillas from La Palma. Please remind yourself to not take certain neighborhood features for granted. Neighborhoods are like plants- they need attention and sustenance and a little love. Introduce yourself and go buy some milk and cereal, or fruit, or extra cough drops, or local made honey, or whatever. Say hi if you are just walking by. It’s ok to just offer a greeting when you pass by on your walk to Bart or Walgreens. Offer love and support to the people that make it go around on 24th street. Offer love and support to the older queer women of color who do honest work and provide for the neighborhood, with a warm heart.

  4. We really appreciate Mission Local. We are impressed by how your article captures the authenticity of our words and store’s culture. The detailed description of our stories and the journey of Five Markets touched our hearts. Thank you to all who support local businesses during these times.

  5. Thank you for shining a spotlight on this wonderful- and what was for me – long awaited, healthy, organic food-focused, locally grown/produced neighborhood grocery. I was a customer at Evelyn’s and Marta’s Pioneer video/mail services store next door for years. Marta was a familiar face from Rainbow, and I used to tease her, and ask, “When are you going to open a “Rainbow Annex” here on 24th Street?” And they did! I shop there nearly every day because I’m not a big-box/Amazon/weekly food-box kinda cook. I encourage neighbors to visit their “wall of chocolate”, and poke around for interesting items to add to their larders. I recently spied “Carba Nada”, a lower net-carb dried pasta , which is a blessing for someone flirting with being “pre-diabetic”. They carry a high quality 2- filet frozen salmon pack, as well as reasonably priced BIG package of shrimp that is great to have on hand for numerous meals, or a quick tasty appetizer. With their expanding selection of “plant-based” alternatives to meat, I’m enjoying adding these foods to my diet. And finally, my geriatric dog appreciates “the Ladies’ Store” because they routinely carry the stock items needed for me to prepare his special homemade diet: organic chicken, lean ground beef, zucchini, and green beans.

  6. I was just there today for groceries! We are so lucky to have Evelyn & Martha’s store on 24th Street, they are such lovely people.

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