From homeless to owning two businesses

Tony Pena and co-owner Yair Tapia at MVT Marketplace at 2773 Webster Ave.
Photo by Jason Cohen

Life has not been easy for Tony Pena. She and her twin sister were the product of a rape and at age 20 she was homeless for a year.

But, like her mom, Pena is strong and persevered. Today, Pena, 51, is the co-owner of two businesses in her home of Bedford Park and a third in Puerto Rico.

In March of 2020 she opened MVT Marketplace at 2773 Webster Ave. with Yair Tapia and at the end of February will launch Temptations Deli, a healthy eatery, a few blocks away.

“I feel like I hit the lotto,” Pena said to the Bronx Times. “If she (her mom) was alive she would be extremely happy.”

Pena’s mother, who was a ballet dancer and singer in the Dominican Republic, came to the USA at 35 by herself. Prior to meeting her husband, John, she was sexually assaulted and she gave birth to Helen “Tony” and her twin sister Harriet. Eventually, her other four kids immigrated here.

While they lived primarily in Throggs Neck, they often moved out of fear of her mom’s rapist. When Pena was 15 her mom finally revealed the truth about their dad.

“My mom she was a strong Spanish woman,” Pena stated. “It made us closer. My mom was a rock.”

In her teens the family owned a pizzeria on Pelham Parkway. Pena learned how to make pizza and loved working there.

But at 20-years-old life took a sharp turn. Her family decided to move to Texas and offered she and her sister a house in the Lone Star state or a chance to run the pizza shop. Pena declined both options.

“When my mom left I hit a rough patch,” she recalled.

She was living with a girlfriend, but things fell apart and she became homeless.

Leaning on welfare and her grit, she landed a job at a pizzeria. Through hard work, she was able to rent rooms and eventually got an apartment on Jackson Ave.

“I couldn’t live like that (homeless),” she explained.

She then did billing for a beeper company and for six years ran her brother’s temp agency in New Jersey.

Being in charge there made her realize that one day she wanted her own business.

After the agency closed she had a couple of other jobs and in 2013 started a marketing company. Pena does campaigns that help low-income people qualify for a free phone. It eventually expanded to Puerto Rico.

Her current venture, which began just as the pandemic arrived, was not planned at all. A grocery store suddenly closed and she seized the opportunity.

She gutted and renovated the place and now offers a variety of items, ranging from cologne to gloves and watches and rents out part of it to a hair stylist and a tattoo artist and is looking for more tenants.

“We’re not making a huge profit, but we’re not sinking,” she explained.

As Pena got older she noticed that bodegas were everywhere in the Bronx and it was difficult to access quality healthy food. Not only does this bother her, but she recently found out she is borderline diabetic.

So, the mom of four wanted to set an example for her kids and began to search for a place to open up a healthy deli. She found a spot between Oliver and 199 and by the end of the month will launch Temptations Deli with two other people.

From living homeless to struggling in the early part of her life, Pena is ready to give back to her community and is grateful for everything.

“How many bodegas do you see have a salad bar or juice bar,” she remarked. “I’m a person where I have an idea and I don’t stop until I execute it.”

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