It started with a passion for pizza: Melody and Russ Stein bonded over their love of authentic pies while at Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university catering to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Wanting to follow in her restaurateur parents’ footsteps, Melody applied to culinary school, only to be rejected—she believes due to her deafness. So she and her husband opened Mozzeria, the first deaf-owned-and-operated restaurant in a major city, in San Francisco in 2011. The pizza joint not only served as a way for the community to learn some sign language as they enjoyed tasty Neapolitan pies (posters showed basic signs for ordering), but also provided job opportunities for deaf workers. The team just opened a second location in Washington, D.C.—an area that’s home to the largest deaf population per capita in the world—and a third is planned for Austin, Texas. We talked with CEO Ryan Maliszewski about the purpose-driven pizza shop.
What were aspects of dining that you wanted to address and retool for the deaf community?
Mozzeria was created to provide customers a welcoming, memorable, and visual environment to experience deaf culture while also increasing career opportunities for deaf people. It’s a place where our employees can demonstrate their talents and feel a shared sense of belonging, all while serving delicious wood-fired Neapolitan pizza.
What kind of training programs are in place for your staffers?
Many deaf people grow up with limited access to information and opportunities. I believe in creating opportunities for deaf people to develop critical skills—leadership, creativity, teamwork, etc.—that allow them to advance their goals and differentiate themselves in a competitive landscape. There’s a wealth of talent in our community and we hope that other businesses will tap into it as well.
What do you wish hearing people understood about deaf workers?
We pride ourselves on changing customers’ perspectives. From the minute they walk in, we show them that deaf people can do anything—make pizza, bartend, hold management positions, and run the show. Ideally, our customers will leave knowing that communication is easy and that deaf people aren’t so different after all.
How do you see the Mozzeria brand growing going forward?
We would very much like to open at least two restaurants per year. We’ve been exploring various locations across the country as well as overseas, where there is a deep labor pool for deaf people. The talent has always been there, just not the opportunities. Mozzeria aims to change that.
This article originally appeared in our Winter/Spring 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.