Pitch this Pizza Joint before they Take-Off

Steve’s breakdown: Ever have a feeling that a small company is about to knock it out of the park? Here’s a Deaf-owned S.F. pizzeria that hopes to go national with a franchise plan. The good news is the amount of support they are getting is amazing. So much so there will probably be a waiting line for stores because it’s all about offering business ownership and jobs with advancement to the def community.

There’s no way this doesn’t work.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA: Mozzeria, the Neapolitan-style pizzeria started by Melody Stein and her husband, Russ, had a few key ingredients necessary for its formation: The dream of owning a restaurant, a drive to support opportunities for deaf Americans and a New Yorker’s love of a perfect slice.

Just finding the capital necessary to open the doors in the Mission District was a two-year process. The Steins were turned down for loans by a line of banks that didn’t want to take a risk on a pair of unproven deaf business owners, especially in San Francisco’s already crowded restaurant industry. Eventually they cobbled together the funds in part from organizations dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities.

Now, aided by a grant from the nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf’s Social Venture Fund, Mozzeria hopes to export its model across the country as the first deaf-owned restaurant franchise.

From their humble beginnings, Mozzeria has grown into a recognizable San Francisco brand with lines out the door and offerings that include catering and a food truck. It was on a food truck tour across America that Melody Stein said she saw the appetite for a restaurant like Mozzeria around the country.

“When we did our food truck tour, the deaf community said we’re hungry for jobs we want to work,” Melody Stein said through a translator. “I saw deaf people being thrilled to be able to come in and work in a restaurant where they have opportunity for promotion and to be able to communicate with their co-workers. ”

As part of the CSD program, Mozzeria will work with the nonprofit to develop training materials in American Sign language modeled on the success of the restaurant’s San Francisco’s location. Mozzeria hopes to open its first franchise in the second half of 2018.

Chris Soukop, CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf, said the organization is focused on employment opportunities and saw supporting Mozzeria’s model as a great way to support that mission. The unemployment and underemployment rate among deaf Americans hovers around 70 percent, according to data from CSD.

“One of the biggest challenges is that there are really no resources on learning how to run your own business,” Soukop said. “So we’re really talking about providing strategic guidance, creating mentorship opportunities and providing administrative support, which may include financial, legal or marketing help.”

Their own lack of a defined roadmap to follow as deaf business owners forced the Steins to rely on their own intuition and a fair amount of trial-and-error in developing best practices.

One major shift was switching from a traditional competitive restaurant to a teaching model where the training and hiring of deaf workers – regardless of experience – is central.

That change in focus led to a shift toward a more centralized menu to maximize efficiency in training and a defined process for food handling and food safety certification that involved the translations of tests to American Sign Language.

To streamline and improve their operations, the restaurant has relied on both high-tech and low-tech solutions that range from supplying customers with pen and paper for easier communication to replacing ringing phones with a system of connected LED lights.

While all of Mozzeria’s employees are deaf, the vast majority of the restaurant’s clientele are hearing and in many cases have never interacted with a deaf person. Both Melody Stein and Soukop said spreading Mozzeria’s model around the country can go part of the way to addressing that gap.

“From my perspective the biggest opportunity that we have here is to help impact and change the broader perspective of what deaf people are capable of. The more successful small businesses that we create that translates into success stories and more mainstream awareness of deaf people’s contribution through the world,” Soukop said.

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