Mozzeria Pizza with Melody Stein

As of 2011, between 42 and 54 percent of Deaf people were unemployed, compared to the 9.1 percent of the general population out of work at that time. Despite theoretical protection from the Americans with Disabilities Act, members of the Deaf community often encounter discrimination in hiring practices and from employers. Multiple foodservice chains, including Starbucks and McDonald’s, have faced recent lawsuits for not providing reasonable accommodations to Deaf employees.

Breaking Barriers

With the Deaf community still facing issues like these, you can imagine how difficult it might be for a Deaf person to work in the restaurant industry, much less to own a restaurant. However, Melody and Russ Stein defied the odds to open Mozzeria, a San Francisco pizzeria serving both traditional and innovative pizzas complemented by two food trucks that roam the Bay Area. Mozzeria is completely Deaf-owned and -operated, and Melody and Russ were dedicated to incorporating as many members of the Deaf community as possible into its work, from the artists who decorated the walls to the serving staff.

Technology has contributed to Mozzeria’s success, facilitating communication between staff and hearing customers. A program by Convo helps with phone conversations, flashing a green light for incoming calls and connecting the restaurant and caller with an ASL interpreter via a video device on the restaurant’s end, and delivery apps help with incoming take-out orders. We spoke with Melody Stein about her experiences in the foodservice industry and in opening a restaurant that focuses on an all-too-often underserved community.

KaTom: Can you tell us a little about your background in foodservice? How has being Deaf impacted your experience in the industry?

Melody: My grandmother and my parents ran their restaurants and they were the source of my inspiration. When we moved to America in pursuit of better education for my brother, who is also deaf, and me, my parents decided to open their restaurant in San Francisco. That is when I knew I wanted to be like them and open up my own restaurant one day.

The journey itself was rather challenging, and it started the day when I decided to apply for an enrollment at California Culinary Academy. The admission office called my mother asking to verify my being Deaf, [and when] my mom confirmed, they told [her] that they couldn’t accept my application. I was disappointed. Fast forward to 2010, we decided to start the restaurant, [even] knowing the risks. When we built the restaurant, we knew instantly we had to hire skilled laborers who are Deaf because, like us, they had a hard time being accepted or finding jobs.

K: How has the hearing community reacted to the Deaf atmosphere in the restaurant? How has the Deaf community reacted?

M: In the beginning, some hearing customers were not kind and a bit harsh, but when they tried our food, they came to understand us a bit better. Then, once they become our regulars, they eventually learn some new signs. That’s what I wanted to accomplish: bridging both cultures and communities. [The] Deaf community was thrilled and they were our biggest supporters all the way.

K: I saw that you chose pizza based on your husband’s affinity for it. What made you choose Neapolitan pizza?

M: Russ was born in New York City and of course he has a great love for pizzas, but I asked him to compromise on Neapolitan pizzas. I do love NY style pizzas, but I couldn’t imagine serving NY style pizza with great California wines … and I personally thought Neapolitan pizzas are great and beautiful.

K: What factored into the decision to only open for dinner?

M: We tried lunch, but most residents are gone to work in downtown SF or Silicon Valley. We prefer to use our food truck for lunch service.

K: How has Convo changed the way your restaurant runs? What other technology do you make use of to make communication and operations easier?

M: Actually, we worked with a company who offers video relay service before Convo. We switched to Convo because Convo works around our business needs and Convo is also [a] Deaf-owned business and they understand our needs completely. That makes it much easier, especially with [the] light ringing system. We rely on internet and we have partnered with UberEats, Postmates, Caviar and others. They provide the smart tablets and we receive orders on the tablets.

K: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your restaurant or experiences?

M: I ask that everyone in restaurant industry give Deaf people a chance even though they may have zero experience in working. You will be surprised that you find them valuable assets.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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