My parents have owned restaurants in Hong Kong and San Francisco throughout my life. So it was reasonable that I dreamed of running my own someday. I wasn’t going to let the fact that I was born deaf deter me from realizing that dream.
My route to becoming a restaurateur was circuitous. Owning any restaurant is risky. It’s even more treacherous in San Francisco, a foodie mecca where restaurants come and go faster than the fog rolls in and out. My husband, Russ Stein, is also deaf, and as deaf restaurateurs our goal could have been even more daunting. But we approached it systematically, with a vision to serve both the deaf and the hearing.
My journey began in Hong Kong, where I was born in 1973. My brother, Joseph, is also deaf and my parents did not feel that Hong Kong accommodated deaf people adequately. We moved to the Bay Area when I was 7 and Joseph was 2 so we could attend the California School for the Deaf. My parents always emphasized that education would be even more important for us to make our way through life.
Taking their cue, after high school I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology; it has a good hospitality and tourism management department. After two years, I transferred to Gallaudet University for deaf and hard-of-hearing students; Joseph was already enrolled there. It didn’t have a hospitality management major so I majored in business administration, even though I hated numbers.
That’s where I met my future husband, Russ. After he received his degree in business administration, we moved to San Francisco in 1995. I transferred to San Francisco State University, majoring in hospitality management and graduating in 1998.
My personal goal was postponed when Russ was offered a job at the Communication Service for the Deaf in Sioux Falls, S.D. Though a detour from my dream, it was too good an opportunity for him to refuse. I also got a job there, in marketing. We stayed 10 years.
Those years would serve us well when we returned to San Francisco and felt ready to open a restaurant. Russ agreed, only if it could be a pizzeria. Being from New York, he is a pizza fanatic. Mozzarella is his weakness. That’s how Mozzeria was born. We opened last December in the Mission District.
But the preparation started two years earlier. Immersing myself in Italian cooking, I went to Italy and took pizza- and pasta-making classes in Rome, Sorrento and Positano. I brought along my mother, who signs, to interpret for me.
Back in San Francisco, Russ and I built a small wood-burning oven in our backyard and I practiced making pies. We decided on serving Neapolitan pizza; it felt more authentic to us. I developed our menu — including a pizza topped with roast duck and hoisin sauce, a gesture to my Chinese roots.
The space we chose had been a restaurant previously, but it had not been accessible for people in wheelchairs. We made that accommodation right away; naturally I am a strong advocate of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
There were little glitches from the outset. We encountered certain people who themselves would become speechless, as they had never met deaf people before, much less done business with them. We had to educate government and business reps that they had to arrange for American Sign Language interpreters to communicate with us. We became more used to writing notes back and forth and using the iPad.
Almost everything in the restaurant was designed or built by deaf people, as is all the artwork on the walls. We hired deaf and ASL signers. For many, working in a restaurant was a new experience. We learned a lot together and improvised over time. Everyone now carries paper and pen to communicate with hearing guests. Our kitchen has lots of bulletin boards for the staff to write on, to avoid any mistakes.
The rise of social media and new technology has been an unexpected boon for the deaf, making it much easier to communicate with hearing people — in ways like simple text messaging and video relay services. Twitter and Facebook put us on par with other restaurants. Hearing guests may notice that instead of just picking up the phone and calling, they need to rely more on the Internet to reach us or make reservations. I also started blogging on our website. I’ve been approached to write a book, but I think that juggling the restaurant and our two children is quite enough for now.
These days, I wear a few hats. I still make dough and create pizza recipes. Russ trains the pizza makers. Our chef, Bryan Baker, oversees small plates, pasta and desserts. I’m trying to look more at big-picture issues, like marketing and public relations. And my husband keeps the books — I still hate numbers.