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.”