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Inside San Francisco’s Deaf Owned And Operated Pizzeria

How two determined entrepreneurs overcame the obstacles of running a business for the hearing world.

Inside San Francisco’s Deaf Owned And Operated Pizzeria
[All Photos: via Mozzeria]

Spend a few minutes inside Mozzeria, a popular San Francisco pizza restaurant, and you might notice that something seems different from all other restaurants. It’s not that Mozzeria is particularly quiet, with the din of customer chatter hovering in the background. But the servers aren’t speaking out loud. Neither, in fact, are most of the employees. Mozzeria is a deaf owned and operated restaurant–among the first in the U.S. (if not the only one).

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Launched in 2011, Mozzeria is the creation of Melody and Russ Stein, a deaf couple who met at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Born in Hong Kong, Melody was inspired watching her parents and grandparents run successful Chinese restaurants. But her pizza shop took awhile to materialize. After transferring schools and graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in hospitality management, Melody moved to South Dakota with Russ, a native New Yorker (and pizza lover) who had gotten a job at a nonprofit for the deaf. The Steins stayed in South Dakota for a decade.


Then, in 2006, they moved to the Bay Area, where Melody spent much of her childhood. “We wanted to open a restaurant, but it took a backseat to my husband’s career. Then, when my husband was going through a serious illness, we realized life is too short,” Stein, now Mozzeria’s head chef, told me through a sign language interpreter.

So the couple started putting together the necessary paperwork, and Melody spent a few weeks in Italy taking pizza and pasta-making classes. Soon, she bought a huge, wood-fired Stefano Ferrara oven from Naples (for the uninitiated, this is like the Mercedes of wood-fired pizza ovens).

While building the restaurant, the Steins made sure to include the local deaf community. The space is designed and built almost entirely by deaf workers, who broke up two layers of ugly tile to find the hardwood floors below, built the bar, and even created the art on the walls.

All of the basic ingredients for a pizza restaurant were in place, but actually running a restaurant for a mostly-hearing clientele–especially one that actively made an effort to hire deaf servers–took some thought.

ConvoLights

The advent of online reservation services like OpenTable relieve a lot of the burden of taking phone reservations, but plenty of customers still ring Mozzeria up.

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When the restaurant opened, it missed 50% of its calls, losing countless customer reservations along the way. At the time, Mozzeria was using a clunky video relay service–a video system where an American Sign Language interpreter acts as a middleman between the caller and Mozzeria–that indicated an incoming call with a large blinking light behind the cash register. Not only was it ineffective, the light was distracting to customers.


More recently, Mozzeria has installed a system from a deaf-owned company called Convo that’s more effective and visually pleasing. The system, called ConvoLights, uses Philips Hue connected LED lights to notify the restaurant of incoming calls. Strips of the lights are hidden throughout the restaurant–along the ceiling, the shelving, by the oven, and in the kitchen, among other places.

The lights pulse different colors to indicate different things. A green light indicates a live call, a red one signals a missed call, and a light turning pink to soft purple means a just-missed call. The lights can also pulse to whatever music is playing. When I first visited Mozzeria in November, the restaurant was thinking about using the lights to create a kind of visual doorbell.

These days, Mozzeria employees catch 95% of all their phone calls.

In the community

While most of Mozzeria’s customers are hearing, the restaurant does attract a large deaf following, not least because the California School of the Deaf is in nearby Fremont, California. Last year, Mozzeria brought its business on the road, showcasing the restaurant’s Neapolitan pizza while taking a three-week tour across the country in a custom trolley, which is now being used as a makeshift food truck.


Russ and Melody picked up the trolley in Florida (“Trolleys are big for senior citizens,” says Stein). On the 3,000-mile journey back to California, they stopped by deaf schools and other community spots to sell pizza, teaching people to make pizza along the way.

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“We did the SF Street Food Festival. People were asking for catering, then it started going into weddings,” says Stein. The food trolley just made sense (plus, it’s great PR for the restaurant).

But here’s the big question: In a city that’s not exactly known for it’s amazing pizza, how do Mozzeria’s slices fare? It’s better than most other pizza in San Francisco, and certainly matches up with the best Neapolitan pizza in town. And ultimately, while the Steins want their restaurant to be a beacon for the deaf community, they also just want to make really, really good food.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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