This pizza shop is run entirely by deaf people — and the world is hungry for more
A pie from Mozzaria Mozzaria

This pizza shop is run entirely by deaf people — and the world is hungry for more

In 2011, Mozzeria opened its doors to San Franciscans in search of delicious Neapolitan pizza. With a solid 4 out of 5 stars on Yelp and reviews that range from “pretty fantastic” to the “best pizza I’ve ever had in my LIFE,” the restaurant has earned a reputation of serving quality pizza in the Mission district.

Most customers enter Mozzeria without knowing its owners, Melody and Russ Stein, and staff are all deaf — they come for the good food, first and foremost, and that’s a priority for the Steins. Still, running a restaurant where all employees communicate differently poses new challenges, so the founders have created innovative methods for diners to work with the waitstaff to ensure everyone understands one another.

A different letter corresponds with every menu item, along with instructions for signing the letter in American Sign Language
A different letter corresponds with every menu item, along with instructions for signing the letter in American Sign Language Mozzeria

Most of Mozzeria’s customers — about 95% — are not deaf, Melody Stein signed to a translator in an interview over video conference. Every menu item is associated with a letter that customers can point to, and the menus include instructions for customers who want to sign the numbers to their servers — a bonus education. “The slight communication challenges reminded me of dining in another country,” a review from Yelp user Cristina S. said. “I don’t know sign language besides the alphabet, but it was helpful to spell out a couple words. Don’t let it scare you away — pointing and motioning will probably be all you need.”

The tables are all stocked with pen and paper, in case a customer wants to communicate something that would be difficult to gesture, like a food allergy. There’s also a custom-made system for answering the phone, which includes a video-relay service where a translator is connected with the staff. These methods have been so successful that the Communication Service for the Deaf has chosen the pizzeria as its first business parter of its new social venture fund. CSD Social Venture Fund, the first social-impact fund and incubator for businesses owned by deaf people in the U.S., will provide Mozzeria with capital funding and resource support to develop the first franchise owned and operated by deaf people in the U.S.

Mozzeria staffers
Mozzeria staffers Mozzeria

Since Mozzeria’s beginnings, Stein has been fielding messages from other members of the deaf community asking for the restaurant in their hometowns — they want to own their own businesses while helping others, too — so the opportunity to expand is huge. According to CSD, there’s a 70% unemployment and underemployment rate among deaf Americans.

“The biggest wish that I have is for people to understand that there is a spectrum of deaf identities,” Chris Soukup, CSD’s CEO, said in an interview. “[Employers] really need to begin a dialogue with an open mind and an open heart and not make any assumption of what a deaf individual is capable of.”

Source: Mozzeria/YouTube

The next Mozzeria is expected to open in the second half of 2018. Stein stressed how important it is to create a launchpad for people in her community.

“It’s definitely harder to get employed,” she said. “People see us as hard to communicate with, and they don’t want to take on that responsibility.”

This is one reason the restaurant hires deaf people — even if they don’t have an hour of experience in the restaurant industry. As long as they’re willing to be trained, Stein said any deaf person is welcome to apply.

“We need to make sure that we have examples of a deaf person succeeding in the business environment, the corporate environment,” Soukup added. “The more success stories we can create, the more we can do to overcome the myths about a deaf person’s ability.”

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