Lifestyle & Culture

Melody and Russ Stein’s Pizza Restaurants Are Staffed Entirely By Deaf People

The married couple’s restaurant, Mozzeria, will be opening a second branch in Washington, DC, in spring 2020.

27.08.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Folks
Photo by Folks

For a long, long time, being D/deaf in the US and dreaming of being a chef or a restaurant owner were incompatible. Culinary schools turned down applicants under the pretext that they’d be a liability in the kitchen — somehow unable to understand calls for food or likely get in the way of others.

The end result of this and similar barriers across various industries is that the D/deaf community has struggled to find meaningful employment. A study at the University of Texas found that only 48% of the deaf population in the US are employed, compared to 72% of the country’s hearing population.

Addressing this has been a lifelong mission for Melody Stein and her husband Russ. Ever since she was a child, growing up surrounded by her father’s Chinese restaurant, Melody had hopes of working in the culinary industry. This was knocked aside by California Culinary Academy rejecting her application, on the grounds outlined above. But her passion remained, ever-present.

So in 2009, together with her husband, she started work on creating a restaurant. After getting together the money and travelling to Italy to study the secrets of the Napoletana pizza — even earning an official recognition of authenticity from the ‘Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana’ — the duo opened ’Mozzeria’ in San Francisco 2011.

The restaurant’s selection of traditional and imaginative pizzas has been a critical success, with San Francisco Chronicle’s food editor Paolo Lucchesi writing that customers “can feel the love in the food.”

What’s particularly empowering about the restaurant is that everyone who works there — from the chefs to the hosts to the bar staff — is deaf. Ditto for everyone who delivers food using the food trucks.

This is to prevent deaf people from feeling the same as Melody had felt. In an interview with Now This, Russ said they needed to take on the responsibility to make sure they were hiring Deaf people to “give folks opportunities to grow”.

The Washington Post reports that diners in Mozzeria can communicate their orders by signing — if they know sign language — writing the order on a slip of paper, or pointing at the menu.

And new a second branch of the restaurant will soon open in Washington, DC, just around the corner from Galladuet University — the world-renowned school for people with hearing loss that both Melody and Russ had attended. Russ added to The Washington Post that it had therefore “been a long time dream to see a deaf-owned restaurant in Washington DC.”

This means the restaurant will be based just down the road from the Starbucks fully adapted to fit deaf customers — the only such store in the US — and the second of three that the chain has opened around the world.

The Communication Service for Deaf Social Venture Fund has provided millions to the Steins to support the opening, which is scheduled for spring 2020. This is set to be double the size, with space or 100 customers and employment for 30 waiters, chefs and hosts.

Russ also told the Washington Post that being Deaf is not a hindrance, but instead a professional advantage, as deaf people are “excellent” at reading body language and, therefore, ensuring that customer experiences are positive. “There’s nothing more powerful than seeing that customer smile after eating that pizza.”

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