I have always dreamed of opening a restaurant.

Both my parents owned restaurants in Hong Kong and San Francisco, so it was natural that I wanted to open a restaurant of my own. I began studying hospitality management, and eventually met my husband, Russ, at Gallaudet University. On our first date, we spent all our time in restaurants and bars, starting with Italian and ending with breakfast at a Greek diner at 2 am.

Little did we know we would end up opening Mozzeria, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria and San Francisco’s first Deaf-owned restaurant, one of just a few in the United States. Russ and I are both Deaf, so it was important for us to create an inclusive experience for all of our guests.

More and more Deaf professionals are entering the food service industry determined, not just to prove they’re capable, but to pursue their own personal passions.

 

Almost everything at the restaurant was designed, built or made by Deaf people, as is all the artwork on the walls. But while it’s important for us to center everything around our comfort as Deaf people, we don’t make it the focus. There’s no posted sign that notifies you are entering a Deaf- or American Sign Language-friendly zone. All we ever wanted was to feel like we didn’t need to worry about how we would understand or make ourselves understood to others.

But the process took more than a decade.

We moved to San Francisco in 1995 after Russ graduated from Gallaudet, and I transferred to San Francisco State University to continue my studies in hospitality management. But my dream of opening a restaurant took a detour when Russ was offered a job in South Dakota with Communication Service for the Deaf that was too good to pass up. We ended up staying there for 10 years, and when we returned to San Francisco, we felt we were ready to open a restaurant. Russ, being from New York, is a pizza fanatic, and we settled on the idea of a pizzeria.

Melody Stein, co-founder of Mozzeria
Melody Stein, co-founder of Mozzeria

I went to Italy to immerse myself in the food culture of Rome, Sorrento and Positano, focusing especially on pizza- and pasta-making. When I returned to San Francisco, Russ and I built a small wood-burning oven, where I practiced making pies. We decided on the Neapolitan style, as it felt more authentic to us. We then developed our menu, which I like to describe as “modern Italian with global influences,” which includes our Peking duck pizza, an homage to my upbringing in Hong Kong. On December 9, 2011, Mozzeria opened its doors in San Francisco’s Mission district.

It’s a risk to own and operate any restaurant, especially in markets with high turnover such as San Francisco. It’s important that we had a vision that centered around the food, and one that would serve both Deaf and hearing people. It was a big experiment and team effort and we did a lot of improvisation to find what worked.

To start, the restaurant space that we found was not wheelchair accessible, and we made that accommodation right away. While trying to get our permits, we had to educate government and business reps who had never met a Deaf person before. We had to teach them to overcome their own stereotypes about Deaf people, how to arrange for American Sign Language interpreters so we could communicate. We ended up having to always carry around an iPad or pad and paper to communicate in writing, just in case.

Once that hurdle was passed, we then needed to realize the vision of a staff who would communicate primarily in a visual medium, as we hired not only Deaf staff, but hearing staff who knew ASL or were willing to learn. We’ve since gone all-Deaf in our staffing, as we felt strongly that we needed to extend opportunities to Deaf people who would otherwise experience obstacles in training or employment. We’ve never regretted making that decision.

mozzarella pizza

Everyone carries paper and pens for the guests and we have bulletin boards posted all over, so writing is one way to communicate. We also use ASL, gesture or an improvised system of shorthand signs to quickly communicate. We take calls on a video-based ASL interpreting relay system, but find that more and more guests are using the internet and apps to reach us. All of this is so seamlessly integrated, the guests don’t even notice it, which is good. We prefer it when they’re focused on the food.

Going to a restaurant shouldn’t be an isolating experience for anyone. Imagine having to nod politely, pretending to understand a waiter who rattles off the daily specials in a language completely foreign to you. It behooves those who work in service industries to know how to engage with all kinds of customers. It’s really not that difficult to treat everyone equally.

It was mostly trial and error to find our rhythm with a varied customer base, but we got there pretty quickly. Not all of our customers were willing to learn along with us right off the bat. Some people simply could not fathom that Deaf people could make delicious food, much less run or even own a restaurant. We had a few customers who were unkind at first, but after tasting our food, they began to understand us more. We knew we could count on the Deaf community’s support, but we wanted to have hearing people come aboard with us. We always knew that food was a way to transcend any sort of distance between people, and Mozzeria’s ability to bridge the gaps between “us” and “them” has been proven again and again. We have people who started out clueless, and are now our regulars and sign with us. It is that kind of support we will always be grateful for.

Melody Stein, co-founder of Mozzeria
Melody Stein, co-founder of Mozzeria

We’ve earned an international reputation, and people travel from all over the world to visit our restaurant. One winter, a group of Deaf Italians walked into Mozzeria without realizing that a Deaf couple owned it. They checked out our menu and saw our Stefano Ferrara oven, and decided it was Italian enough to sit down. They were delightfully taken by surprise when we greeted them using sign. The experience represents a culmination of the change of attitudes over time, where we, as Deaf people, are now confident enough to insist on our rights and can choose what sorts of experiences we want to have. We have always thought Mozzeria has successfully bridged that gap.

Our relationship with Communication Service for the Deaf will only strengthen that experience. We have been named the first business partner of its Social Venture Fund, a multi-million dollar fund created by CSD in 2017 to help address the 70 percent unemployment and underemployment rate among Deaf Americans. Our goal is to expand Mozzeria into the first-ever Deaf-owned franchise, and the CSD fund will allow us to receive capital funding and resource support, as well as develop training materials in ASL. Through these videos, we will share the business and operations model we have developed for our San Francisco location. We envision that each Mozzeria location will be looked at as a source of both local and national pride.

It’s funny, we’re using a franchise to combat disenfranchisement. A franchise in each city will become a nexus of opportunity, but not only for Deaf people. For Deaf people, they will have opportunities at ownership or management, or want to become skilled in making food or waiting on customers. For hearing people, a new Mozzeria in their hometown will provide an experience of being welcomed that they may realize should be everywhere. It will change a lot of minds and hearts. Ultimately, we want to build a place where people can feel right at home.

We always knew that food was a way to transcend any sort of distance between people, and Mozzeria’s ability to bridge the gaps between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been proven again and again.

 

While I don’t want to focus on the negatives, I feel like the owners and managers of restaurants and businesses that reliably see Deaf regulars do them and their own staff a disservice by not attempting to build experiences that are inclusive. It’s not just about making Deaf people feel welcome, but about being open to any sort of new customer that may walk in the door and part with their money to support your business. Anyone can tell you that restaurants and other food service businesses want to build up and rely on a pool of regulars. How much bigger might that pool be if they trained their staff to sign in ASL, and how much better at customer service might putting your staff through that experience make them? More and more Deaf professionals are entering the food service industry determined, not just to prove they’re capable, but to pursue their own personal passions, whether it’s making the perfect cup of espresso or slice of pizza.

Because Deaf people are used to accommodating and educating hearing people, we often leave restaurants with waitstaff who remark how kind and helpful we are to them. We understand that feeling and expect a two-way street.

We have built that culture at Mozzeria. It’s exciting to see our Deaf patrons engage our waitstaff in-depth on the food and ingredients, many for the very first time in their lives. We’re probably the most inclusive restaurant in America. Anyone, Deaf or hearing, can walk in and know that they won’t miss a thing.

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Melody was born in Hong Kong and learned the business from her parents who owned restaurants in Hong Kong and San Francisco. She met her husband, Russ, a third-generation New Yorker, while attending Gallaudet University, where they bonded over a common love of food. When they first moved to San Francisco in 1995, Russ realized he missed the Italian restaurants and pizzerias of New York. Any way you slice it, the rest is history.