On December 9, 2011, Russ and Melody Stein opened a pizzeria that intends not just to feed its customers, but also educate everyone about Deaf people. From then on, San Francisco’s Mission District has been more inclusive to everyone.
Russ and Melody Stein
Melody and Russ Stein, a Deaf couple, first met when they were still students at Gallaudet University. Melody, whose parents owned restaurants in Hong Kong and San Franciso, has always wanted to follow her parents’ footsteps and have a restaurant of her own. Her husband Russ, on the other hand, was a pizza fanatic who was eager to support Melody on her dreams. From these the two clicked and decided to open a Neapolitan-style pizzeria which they would call Mozzeria.
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Providing guests an inclusive experience was the priority of the couple. In an article published in upserve.com, Melody explained why inclusivity was important not just for her and her husband, but also for the Deaf community. “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.”
“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.”
Making the necessary preparations for the launching of the restaurant made Russ and Melody realize more how exclusive the society is. “To start, the restaurant space that we found was not wheelchair accessible… While trying to get our permits, we had to educate government and business reps who had never met a Deaf person before… We ended up having to always carry around an iPad or pad and paper to communicate in writing, just in case.”
The experience only strengthened the couple’s desire to create a community wherein all sorts of people can walk in and know that they won’t miss a thing. Melody pointed out that while almost everything at Mozzeria was designed, built or made by Deaf people, they still made sure that the restaurant will not just focus on the comfort of Deaf people. “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.”
Bridging the Gap
Another unique thing about Mozzeria is that its staff are all deaf. It comes as Melody and Russ saw the business as an opportunity to extend opportunities to Deaf people who they say “would otherwise experience obstacles in training or employment.” To ensure a clear communication between the customers and staff, the couple devised a system that would make it easy for both parties to understand each other. “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,” said Melody.
“Ultimately, we want to build a place where people can feel right at home.”
Mozzeria’s methods of building a connection between the Deaf and hearing have called the attention of aspiring business owners across the United States. The restaurant was named as first business partner for a Social Venture Fund created by the Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), the first social-impact fund and incubator for businesses owned by deaf people in the U.S. “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,” said Melody.
With the next Mozzeria expected to open in the second half of 2018, Melody says the franchise will provide more opportunities for both the Deaf and hearing. “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.”