Living in downtown Washington, DC, during the pandemic means that every day there is news of yet another local restaurant closing its doors. I hear about the struggles the restaurant industry faces daily directly from my partner, a sous chef at a fine dining location in the city. Keeping a restaurant open is a monumental challenge. Keeping a restaurant open throughout COVID-19? Even more challenging, as servers and cooks adjust to wearing masks for the entirety of their shifts, scramble to create outdoor seating, and introduce new systems for takeout orders.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to read about a new restaurant opening in the city. Mozzeria, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, founded in San Francisco in 2011 with the goal of introducing customers to Deaf culture and offering career opportunities to people who are Deaf, opened in September 2020, making it the first Deaf-owned and Deaf-led business on DC's H street corridor in more than 150 years.
I am incredibly grateful to Mozzeria CEO Ryan Maliszewski for taking some time away from pizza ovens to answer a few innovation-related questions I had about how they are adapting to meet their goals under the constraints of COVID-19. The following is a transcript from our email interview.
Laura Havel: Hi! Thank you so much for allowing me to disrupt your busy schedule for this interview. Congratulations on opening! What drew you to the H street corridor for the pizzeria’s location?
Ryan Maliszewski: Thank you for having me and for spotlighting Mozzeria and all the great stuff we’re working on!
We chose Washington, DC, as our second location primarily because DC is home to one of the largest Deaf communities in the country. The federal government is the nation’s largest employer and they provide great support, as well as opportunities, to Deaf employees and candidates.
Our restaurant is situated in the wonderful, diverse, and growing community off the historic H Street corridor. We have such a wonderful corner location off a busy street and we’re right in front of a DC Streetcar stop which has its advantages as well. Additionally, Gallaudet University, the world’s largest liberal arts university for the Deaf, is only a stone’s throw away from Mozzeria.
LH: When did you decide to pursue opening the first Deaf-owned and Deaf-led business in D.C.? Did you have any mentors or role models, or a specific experience that inspired you?
RM: Approximately two years ago, the co-founders and Communication Service for the Deaf’s (CSD) Social Venture Fund (SVF) entered a mutually beneficial partnership agreement that leverages the full force of talent and capabilities of CSD-SVF to help scale the business to new locations. What’s especially exciting about this partnership is that together, we’re taking Mozzeria beyond just one city or location. By opening locations in multiple states, we are the first Deaf-owned, Deaf-led business, to my knowledge, to scale at this level.
LH: What were your first thoughts when masks became mandatory in DC? I imagine that lip reading is an important communication style that many of your employees rely on. How has your staff adapted?
RM: Opening a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic has many challenges. But at the same time, the pandemic is an opportunity for our customers to communicate in sign language or use gestures, especially since masks make it harder for both hearing and Deaf people to communicate. We also had a professor who specializes in gesture come into the restaurant as part of our new employee training program to share tips on how to use improved facial expressions, like using your forehead, eyebrows, eyes, and, of course, hand motions. The idea was to create a presence in the restaurant that created a sense of curiosity, while still being inviting enough—rather than overwhelming—for our customers to feel at ease when coming in to pick up their orders.
Deaf people tend to take advantage of every opportunity where non-verbal communication is concerned. We often communicate with non-signing people at Mozzeria, and in daily life, either by typing out messages on smartphones, writing on pen and paper, or on one of several small whiteboards we have in the restaurant. That said, we are thrilled for any opportunity to teach our customers American Sign Language. Or, if they already know some ASL, we love to practice with them! Our goal is for every customer to leave the restaurant knowing at least a sign or two, like how to ask for “More pizza, please!”
LH: What other innovations have worked for you and your team to create a safe and welcoming environment?
RM: We have strategically placed QR code-backed signs throughout the restaurant, encouraging customers to place their orders online—the codes are even on our hand sanitizers! Even though we offer walk-in ordering, we place a pen and paper on the counter and we sanitize pens each time someone uses them.
We are in the process of exploring ways we can tap into QR code technology to where we can create educational opportunities for our customers, such as pulling up a video on the history of Mozzeria and its impact on our employees and community. We are even considering including a sign language library highlighting signs for the foods and beverages we serve in the restaurants in DC and San Francisco, and our food truck in San Francisco.
At Mozzeria DC, we also have a “selfie zone” where customers can snap photos of themselves in front of our beautiful double wood-burning ovens that were handmade and transported from Naples, Italy. Customers have seemed to really enjoy that feature in our restaurant. We love when customers tag us in their photos!
As Deaf people, we are natural born problem solvers who are usually eager to experiment and create new, enhanced ways to communicate and connect with others in an authentic way.
LH: At the Lemelson Center, we embrace failure as an important part of the invention process. When you opened, were there any innovations you hoped would work but failed? How did you overcome that failure?
RM: As Deaf people, we are natural born problem solvers who are usually eager to experiment and create new, enhanced ways to communicate and connect with others in an authentic way.
At Mozzeria, we hoped to select a Point of Sale (POS) system that offered a state-of-the-art communications platform to make ordering an easy process for our customers, We also hoped to find a system that would have an alert feature to notify customers that their order is ready for pick up. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a single technology platform that supports this level of convenience. We plan to continue working with the talented and innovative people at Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) to develop a workable platform that allows us to connect with our customers better and, more importantly, get our foods in the hands of our customers quickly and while the food is still hot.
Collaboration brings ideas and communities together; that alone can make for some pretty amazing results.
LH: How important would you say collaboration is to problem solving?
RM: Very! Without collaboration, there is no diversity in people, thought, or action. For example, we are all for supporting and creating employment opportunities for Deaf people. We have collaborated with several Deaf-owned businesses to provide various services, from delivery to deep cleaning the restaurant. We are also in the process of partnering with several small businesses in our neighborhood to provide services such as dry cleaning. We even want to put some of their food items on our menu as a menu special or promotion opportunity. Collaboration brings ideas and communities together; that alone can make for some pretty amazing results.
LH: What do you think needs to be done to help people, especially children, feel and become more inventive, especially in the Deaf community?
RM: Opportunities. The talent within the Deaf community has always been there, but not the opportunities. When customers walk into our doors for the first time, I want them to leave with a new perspective that Deaf people can do anything from cooking, to bartending, to making pizza, and managing a restaurant. This is particularly important for our youth, Deaf or not, to see that and feel inspired by it.
I would like to see more opportunities to incubate ideas alongside mentors (i.e., entrepreneurs and community leaders or advocates) who know sign language and provide consulting or advising services. We have several incubator labs or small business development centers, but not one specific, centralized location that provides a wide suite of services by those who know sign language (interpreters are very costly).
Additionally, I would like to see STEM education intertwined with vocational training opportunities, particularly within the hospitality and food management industry. Vocational training is more important than ever—especially in a gig-based and tech-heavy environment.
LH: If you could invent anything, what would you like to invent in the future?
RM: Three things actually!
- Fast flying drones that can deliver Mozzeria’s delicious Neapolitan wood-fired pizza to our customers’ doorsteps while still hot.
- A pizza-oriented POS system that could further enhance our intake and outbound food triaging capabilities. With surging demand and the specific need to keep Neapolitan pizza continuously warm, we need to better streamline the way our customers receive their orders, either from walk-up, in-house ordering, going with a delivery service, or ordering online. This includes an improved alert/notification pick up system.
- Self-order service kiosks in sign language supported by open captioning (subtitles) that are also available in major foreign languages.