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Deaf-Owned and Operated Pizzeria Becomes a National Chain With New Location

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On June 20, deaf-owned pizzeria Mozzeria announced on Facebook it will open a second location in Washington, D.C., in 2020, making the popular destination a nationwide chain.

Mozzeria, a popular Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant, opened its first location in San Francisco in 2011. The company was started by Melody Stein and her husband Russ Stein, both of whom are deaf. For Melody Stein, working in the food industry was a life-long dream — she told The Mighty her family owned a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco — but she faced obstacles because others didn’t understand how to communicate with someone who is deaf.

Stein told The Washington Post her application to attend the California Culinary Academy was declined because they didn’t think a deaf person would be safe in the kitchen.

“[The Academy] called my mom and said we can’t accept her application because she’s deaf,” Stein told The Post. “What if they were in the kitchen trying to yell, ‘Out of the way!’ with hot soup? They viewed me as a liability.”

Stein said she landed on pizza thanks to Russ’s passion for the dish — and the restaurant’s name is in part inspired by his love of mozzarella cheese. The Steins chose San Francisco for their first Mozzeria location because of the city’s high population of local deaf people. Mozzeria recipes like pecking duck pizza help the restaurant stand out, in addition to a 5,000-pound wood-fired pizza oven. The Stein’s classic margherita pizza remains their most popular menu item.

While opening a restaurant for anyone can be difficult, Russ Stein said trying to file all the paperwork and permits to get the doors open with hearing people who didn’t have any interpreters on staff presented an extra challenge. Like now, Melody and Russ Stein said education is huge component of their work since so many in the hearing community don’t know how to communicate with the deaf community.

All of Mozzeria’s employees are deaf and communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). Customers order their pizza using ASL, photo menus or by writing on paper, which is kept at each table. Most of the restaurant’s design, right down to the artwork on the walls, was also created by deaf people. Melody Stein said this not only provides job opportunities for deaf people in the community but it also helps the restaurant stand out because it’s a different experience.

Mozzeria added two San Francisco-based food trucks in 2016, and in 2018, Stein began looking to expand into a nationwide chain. With investments from the Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) Social Venture Fund, which supports deaf-owned businesses, the Steins began scouting for locations in Austin, Texas, which also has a large deaf community. In all, Melody and Russ Stein said they plan to open eight to 12 Mozzeria locations nationwide in communities with large deaf populations.

In June, Mozzeria announced it will first bring its delicious pizza recipes to a second location in Washington, D.C., in 2020 with financial support from the CSD Social Venture Fund.

The Washington, D.C., Mozzeria will also employ an all-deaf staff. Its new location at 13th and H Streets NE is near Gallaudet University, a college dedicated to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Mozzeria will open several blocks away from Starbucks’ first signing store, which opened in 2018.

Mozzeria also helps fill a gap for deaf workers who, like others with disabilities, face challenges in the workforce. According to a 2016 report from the National Deaf Center, only 48% of those who are deaf were in the workforce compared to 72% of hearing individuals. In addition, according to CSD, 70% of deaf people are unemployed or underemployed.

Russ Stein told The Mighty hiring deaf workers across the business is an integral part of Mozzeria’s mission. It gives others in the deaf community an opportunity to build their resume and career, from the dishwasher to front-of-house staff to the electrician. Mozzeria also helps partner deaf workers with hearing-owned companies to break down misconceptions about people who are deaf.

The Washington Post reported the newest branch of Mozzeria will be larger than the San Francisco storefront. Compared to 15 full-time employees in San Francisco, Washington will require 30 full-time staff members. Melody Stein told The Mighty they think Mozzeria will be the only deaf-owned business in its new Washington, D.C., location near Gallaudet University.

Christopher Soukup, the CEO of CSD, said Mozzeria is making a difference in every community it serves, especially for those who are deaf and rarely find spaces designed for them, let alone employment opportunities.

“Each [Mozzeria] location will provide the opportunity to create meaningful employment experiences for people who are deaf,” Soukup told The Mighty in a statement. “Deaf-owned businesses understand the talent that exists within our community and actively seeks out the opportunity to hire deaf employees. These business successes help to promulgate a more accurate perception of the talent and abilities of people who are deaf…one story at a time.”

According to Mozzeria, construction on the new location will begin in fall 2019 in anticipation of a spring 2020 opening. Hiring is expected to begin in early 2020. The search for an additional location in Austin is ongoing — and you’ll have to check back regularly for additional announcements about what’s next for Mozzeria.

Article updated July 10 with comments from Mozzeria owners Melody and Russ Stein and CSD CEO Christopher Soukup.

Header image via Clare Cassidy Photography

Originally published: July 9, 2019
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