In recent years, residents of Fort Wayne’s South East side have spoken up about the limited grocery options in the area. Demands for greater access and variety have led to new businesses opening, including a mini-market
slated for downtown Fort Wayne and the Utopian Community Grocery store run by the Human Agriculture Cooperative on Oxford Street.
Now, a third, locally-owned grocery option is emerging on the South Calhoun Street Corridor with a special focus on Latinx cuisine.
Zion's sign at 2312 S. Calhoun St.
Judith Peña and her family, including her father Carlos, relocated to Fort Wayne this past May from Salinas, California. One reason for their move to “the City of Churches” was to connect with the religious community in Fort Wayne, Judith says. The name of her family’s new store, which opened last month at 2312 S. Calhoun St. is Zion, a Biblical reference to “a holy place.” Judith Peña and her father Carlos Peña work together inside their shop Zion, 2312 S. Calhoun St.
“It refers to the house of God,” Carlos says. “We want to share what our family has learned through our beliefs while also helping others.”
In addition to selling spices, tortillas, beverages, and other traditional foods from Mexico, Zion offers soaps and other household essentials. Over time, the Peñas plan to add items from more Latin countries to their inventory.
For Carlos and Judith, the element of their business that is most important to them is the ability to share their Christian faith through religious texts to those interested and to play Christian music in the store, which Judith says many of her customers have enjoyed.
“Usually, not a lot of people are interested in religious materials, but people here have been happily taking them,” she says. “We’ve had missionaries come into the store happy to hear what we are playing. We are here selling, but we are also delivering a message.”
Carlos Peña helps a customer at Zion.
Originally from Cuernavaca, the largest city in the state of Morelos in Mexico, Carlos has been living in the U.S for 27 years. He spent the early part of his life as a Tamalero (maker of Tamales), while working for his father’s businesses. Later, he worked as a baker in California. He says it was through these experiences he discovered his calling to help the community and incorporate his connection to the church.
But initially, opening a business was purely a dream for the Peñas.
“We thought about it, but it wasn’t in the plan,” Judith says. “Then, from one moment to the next, the opportunity came.”
Judith Peña and her father Carlos Peña work together inside their shop Zion, 2312 S. Calhoun St.
After her father looked into retail spaces throughout Fort Wayne with no luck, she met Lei Truong, the owner of West Coast Grille on South Calhoun Street who connected her with the SEED Fort Wayne entrepreneurial support organization and, ultimately, was the catalyst for her family opening Zion.
“One day I went into Lei’s restaurant, and he told me, ‘You’re the one I’m looking for,’ and he gave me the information for the SEED.”
Lee Truong moved West Coast Grille to South Calhoun Street in 2014.
While Judith was initially apprehensive that anyone would help her family and doubtful of the outcome, she took Truong’s advice and reached out to SEED, uncertain anything would come of the connection.
SEED, or the Summit City Entrepreneur & Enterprise District
, is a Fort Wayne organization that works with local startups to provide coaching and assistance for accelerating the launch of small businesses.
“I was told I needed to write a business plan, and I didn’t have one,” Judith says.
Judith Peña in front of her shop Zion at 2312 S. Calhoun St.
Not knowing where to start, she was honest with SEED’s leaders and told them she didn’t believe she could get help from them. To her surprise, they told her they still wanted to help.
“We scheduled an appointment, and they asked us to write down what we needed for the business and to our surprise, we received a grant,” Judith says.
A variety of products are for sale at Zion.
The Peñas received a grant from the SEED organization’s Summit City Match
, a pilot program intended to match expanding local businesses with vacant retail space on the South Calhoun Street commercial corridor.
Judith says this funding helped her family equip their store, from acquiring a pricey mop sink installation (required by the city) to other necessities, including a register, signage, and more.
“Even after we’ve opened, SEED still comes in and asks how they can continue to help us,” Judith says.
Spices and other Mexican foods like tortillas line the wall at Zion, a new market at 2312 S. Calhoun St.
In many ways, she attributes these opportunities and the connections she’s made in Fort Wayne to her faith, rather than coincidence or luck.
Since opening the business, Judith has also enrolled in SEED’s Build Institute program
, a separate basic business building course designed to help emerging entrepreneurs equip themselves to operate businesses with training in financial literacy, marketing, and other essential skillsets.
Spices line the wall at Zion, a new market at 2312 S. Calhoun St.
Through her work with SEED, Judith has made additional connections in Fort Wayne’s business community, including Fernando Zapari, the owner of El Mexicano News
, who has assisted her with marketing and vendor opportunities at events during Latino Heritage Month. Judith says Zion’s story
in El Mexicano
helped spread the word about the store’s opening among key demographics in the city’s Spanish-speaking populations.
In thinking about the transition to Fort Wayne from the West coast, Judith says the biggest cultural difference she’s noticed is the melting pot of different cultures in the Midwest—even within Fort Wayne’s Hispanic and Latino communities. Judith says she didn’t realize how diverse Latino culture is until arriving here.
“There are many different characters,” she says. “We’re starting to get to know people more. (In Salinas), Latinos are mostly Mexican.”
A variety of products are for sale at Zion.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau,
the population of Salinas is 79.3 percent Hispanic or Latino, so Fort Wayne’s predominately white population is a culture change, too. To foster more authentic, multicultural business growth on the city’s South Calhoun Street Corridor, current business owners in the area, like West Coast Grille’s owner Truong, are eager to help others launching ventures of their own.
“I would like for more people to know about Calhoun Street businesses and to see more diversity here,” Truong says.
Lee Truong stands by his famous seasoned duck at West Coast Grille on South Calhoun Street.
He has operated his own business on South Calhoun Street since 2014 and has been working with SEED’s Summit City Match program, as well as offering his own retail space, to support emerging entrepreneurs.
Truong says West Coast Grille has experienced increased business in the last year, even despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives him hope for the future of the neighborhood.
“I was the first one who tried to open a business here,” he says. “A lot of people thought I could not make it. I thought it was going to be bad, but we are very busy.”
West Coast Grille is located at 2310 S. Calhoun St.
Truong believes businesses, like Zion, will thrive on South Calhoun Street, too.
“Give it a couple of years,” he says. “Not a lot of people know the business yet, but there’s a lot of diversity in the neighborhood, and I think it is a goldmine.”
Sauces for sale at Zion.
If all goes well, Carlos hopes to expand Zion in the future by selling more fruits and vegetables, installing a freezer to sell meats, and acquiring more vendors for a greater array of options. One day, he’d like to expand to a larger location and continue the family legacy.
“My goal is for my children to be able to pass down what I’ve taught them and to help the future generations,” he says.
Zion is located at 2312 S. Calhoun St. and is open 7 days a week. Follow them on Facebook
This story is part of an Entrepreneurship series made possible by funding from SEED Fort Wayne. To learn more about SEED, visit its website at fwuea.org.