In the heart of San Francisco, the award-winning Mozzeria bustles with activity, serving up Naples-certified Neapolitan pizza fresh from a 2200 kilogram wood-fired oven.

But when customers sit down, some of them admittedly get a little surprise when their server turns out to be deaf.

Owner Melody Stein has not only created this one-of-a-kind signature pizza, but also one of the only deaf-owned and completely deaf-staffed restaurants in the United States.

Born in Hong Kong, her family opened Chinese restaurants in China and the U.S.

She dreamed of starting her own restaurant but faced a cold reality when the culinary school she applied to called her mother.

Melody put her dreams on hold until she met the man who would become her husband, Russ Stein, in Washington DC at Gallaudet University — a school for the deaf.

Together, they set forth on the difficult venture of opening a restaurant.

“Whether you are applying for a permit or a license, many people have never met a deaf person, they did not know how to speak with us. Even though I brought a pen or paper, I would ask them to write. Then, maybe I’d have a simple question. They wouldn’t even read the paper and would continue talking to me, so I’d ask them, would you please write back and forth, I can’t understand you   I dealt with that over and over,” Stein said.

The Steins persevered and now run a restaurant with a welcoming environment for deaf and non-deaf customers.

“We see all walks of life come into our restaurant. And I enjoy people’s initial confusion and how they change their perspective on deaf people. They came in here with one small thought and when they left, their perspective shifted,” co-owner Russ Stein said.

And even with an all deaf-staff, there’s no problem taking orders over the phone. With the use of this video relay service, they get almost a simultaneous translation when the call comes in. It also allows them to understand the emotion and expression behind the call. 

Melody originally hired both deaf and non-deaf staff with the idea of building a bridge.

But with 70% of deaf people either unemployed or underemployed, she changed her thinking.

“In the first couple of months, a hearing person who got a job here decided it was different to work with deaf people. They decided to apply for another job and they got a job right away. I was shocked to see that. That made me realize a hearing person can get a job in a second and deaf people work for years and years to get their first job,” Stein said.

The Steins decided Mozzeria would become a teaching restaurant for the deaf community.

“It was very hard to find a job. I applied everywhere and I had no luck. Fortunately, I was hired here three years ago and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Mozzeria employee Penny Freeman said.

Backed by a several million dollar investment from the Communication Service for the Deaf Social Venture Fund, the Steins will soon be opening an even bigger Mozzeria in Washington, D.C., close to Gallaudet University where they met.

The Steins hope to further showcase the value in hiring deaf employees who often have unique abilities to read their customers and use their hands to both communicate and create.