As a third generation restaurateur, Melody Stein has always had the language of food coursing through her veins. While opening her own restaurant one day seemed like a natural progression, she soon found there was a long road ahead of her, as she was denied acceptance to culinary school because of her Deafness. But that didn’t stop her. She went on to get her degree in Hospitality Management, met her pizza-loving husband Russ, who is also Deaf, and they went to work.
Today, their restaurant, Mozzeria, is a delightful pizzeria in San Francisco’s bustling Mission District. It’s the first restaurant in a major city completely owned and operated by Deaf employees. In 2014, they launched their Mobile Neapolitan Pizzeria Trolley to expand their offerings, decked out with a custom-built Stefan Ferraro oven, and serving made-to-order pizzas.
We recently caught up with Melody to learn about Mozzeria’s unique pizza trolley, her kitchen inspirations, and the challenges she’s overcome along the way.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO FOOD AND COOKING?
I grew up surrounded by food both at home and in restaurants, as nearly all of my family members own restaurants. I’ve always enjoyed cooking at home, however, the thought of being executive chef at my own restaurant never occurred to me until I went to school for Hospitality Management.
WHAT ARE SOME CHALLENGES YOU’VE OVERCOME AS DEAF BUSINESS OWNERS?
We encountered challenges and bumps in launching and managing Mozzeria, mostly because we are Deaf. Many people we dealt with while trying to open the restaurant had never met or talked to a Deaf person before. Some were uncomfortable and sometimes would avoid talking to us, or find someone else to “handle us.” I’d end up going back several times just to get the information and resources we needed. Regardless, Russ and I were so determined to launch Mozzeria in a few months. Then, we also realized we had the additional job of educating hearing people on how to work with Deaf people!
The biggest misconception about the Deaf is that because they don’t hear or speak, they’re not capable of doing anything. We’re proud to showcase the talents of our employees at Mozzeria.
The biggest misconception about the Deaf is that because they don’t hear or speak, they’re not capable of doing anything.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS?
It’s a good feeling to create job opportunities for Deaf people in the community. Nearly all our staff members had been unable to get and keep jobs prior to joining Mozzeria, often just because they’re Deaf. We instill self-confidence in our employees, and they’re surprised with their own capabilities and talent. Each staff member deserves this chance.
Mozzeria’s most popular picks: Peking Duck with Hoisin, Spring Onion and Cucumber (L) and Margherita (R)
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO MOVE AWAY FROM TRADITIONAL PIZZERIA FARE AND USE INGREDIENTS SUCH AS PEKING DUCK AND SESAME?
I knew we faced stiff competition in the Mission and wanted to stand out, other than for being Deaf, for our innovative pizzas. I also wanted to bring influence from my upbringing into our food. Our menu tells the story of our childhoods in Hong Kong, California, and New York, where Russ is from.
HOW DO YOU STAY INSPIRED IN THE KITCHEN?
I get excited whenever I find unique Asian ingredients, such as vegetables or fruits. I see dough as a blank canvas and I tap into my inner artistic side, getting playful with the pizzas. I have some dishes that I’ve wanted to unveil for a while, but I’m waiting for the right time!
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THE TROLLEY COME TO FRUITION?
Our customers pushed us into the food truck business! We had a portable wood-burning oven at a customer’s wedding, and we also used it at the SF Street Food Festival. That oven cooks only two pizzas at a time, and it limited our capability to keep up. After these events, we started to wonder if it was time for us to look for a bigger one. I started researching food trucks late after work and came across this trolley. I showed Russ, and he said, “Yes, that one!”
I assumed the trolley was somewhere in California, but it turned out that it was in Florida. Gulp! We took the risk and bought a one-way ticket to Florida to purchase the trolley, then drive it to San Francisco. The seller said, “What? Are you serious about driving the trolley to San Francisco?!” He had only driven the trolley within a 30 mile radius of his hometown. We took a leap of faith. We drove the trolley 3,000 miles from Florida to San Francisco in November 2014. It’s one of the best business decisions we’ve ever made.
The Mozzeria pizza trolley in San Francisco’s Presidio. Photo courtesy of Mozzeria.
We drove the trolley 3,000 miles from Florida to San Francisco. It’s one of the best business decisions we’ve ever made.
WHAT’S YOUR BIGGEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR SOMEONE JUST STARTING OUT IN THEIR CAREER?
Remember that you have just one life to live. You get to write the story about your life, so live it to the fullest. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Take that opportunity to prove them that they’re wrong about you.