Mozzeria aims to amplify its mission
The crew at Mozzeria, which is owned, managed and entirely staffed by people who are deaf.
There are a lot of pizza joints out there, but nothing like Mozzeria, which is owned, managed and entirely staffed by people who are deaf. Located in San Francisco’s Mission District and open since 2011, it’s been designed with franchising in mind so the concept can be replicated and brought to other cities to help address chronic unemployment and underemployment in America’s deaf community one slice at a time.
Mozzeria first opened in 2011, and its Yelp reviews alone are a revelation. Customers comment on the unique Peking duck pizza and the usuals like ambiance and service, but the best stuff is from those who realize the significance and rarity of this restaurant. It attracts college students learning ASL, deaf people surprised with a visit by family and friends, and countless others who place themselves on a spectrum ranging from “cool” to “humbled.”
A landmark in the wider deaf community, Mozzeria is a partnership between founders Melody and Russ Stein and Communication Service for the Deaf, which contributed to the restaurant through its multi-million-dollar investment fund aimed squarely at providing jobs for deaf people.
Both Steins are deaf, and they are just as passionate about their old-school neapolitan pizza as they are about the restaurant’s wider social mission. They and their counterparts at CSD are using franchising to do something big for a segment of the population that is often unheard and overlooked, especially when it comes to employment.
During a phone interview facilitated by a translator, Melody Stein shared what it took to get the restaurant off the ground, the impact of an unexpected wave of press, her foodie roots and the behind-the-scenes preparation to open a second Mozzeria in Austin, Texas.
Founders Russ and Melody Stein want to franchise the concept to afford more job opportunities to an underserved group.
San Francisco was the perfect home for the first location, she said, with its massive foodie culture, enviable demographics and high percentage of deaf locals. With approximately 70 percent underemployment or unemployment in the community, she said, it is critically important that this restaurant maintains its role in the deaf community as it expands further afield.
Some days it hasn’t been easy, which Stein covers in her blog that’s attracted its own audience. Everything from attracting funding, sticking with the original vision, handling the inevitable customer complaints and doing something that’s never been done in the restaurant world have provided ample fodder for her followers.
“We had our team ready to go, but nobody had any experience in the restaurant industry before,” Stein said, recalling their original grand opening. Seven years later, she and her team are spending more time in the air traveling back and forth between Austin and San Francisco as her team prepares its next grand opening.
“People are coming to San Francisco to learn, to make sure they know what the expectations are and how to do it without Russ and I,” she added. “We’re working on developing training materials, and not just text but also in video form so we can sign, because a large percentage of our deaf employees would much rather have the information in their native language.”
Its Austin location will also be company owned, but everything going into the standardized training materials, opening protocols and pizza recipes are being created with the idea that the next Mozzeria will be franchised, ideally by another member of the community.
Chris Soukup, CEO of CSD, said the organization has achieved countless good things since its founding in 1975, but actively funding franchised businesses that serve the deaf community is an entirely new leaf. At present, it does about $40 million a year in revenue with more than 1,000 employees across the globe.
“We are trying to draw out that hidden bias in the mainstream of what people think a deaf person is and capable of and challenging that conventional thinking and exemplifying success stories and showcasing the talent that is prolific in our community,” Soukup said.
Even among people with college degrees, he said, the employment situation within the deaf community is a stark contrast to the world at large, especially with today’s sub-4 percent unemployment.
CSD has a presence in Austin, which also has an outsized deaf population, making it the ideal home for Mozzeria’s second location. Soukup said the real impact is felt by walking into the San Francisco pizzeria.
“You come into the restaurant and everybody is signing from the kitchen to the front of the store, all of their service staff, everybody in the restaurant is interacting with customers using visual aids and gesturing,” he said. “It’s really a beautiful thing to see and, as a deaf person, it’s hard not to get emotional when you go in and see the environment they’ve created.”