People with Disabilities Encounter Success, Challenges in the Food Industry

Mozzeria, Trouble Coffee, and vocational programs offer people with disabilities something unusual — personal and financial independence.


Melody and Russ Stein own Mozzeria, a restaurant and food truck where customers order menu items in American Sign Language.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

At a recent Off the Grid event at the Oakland Museum of California, a woman stepped up to the window of the Mozzeria food truck and placed her order: “Margherita pizza, please.” The employee pointed to the menu, which showed that each pizza is assigned an American Sign Language letter: “A” for margherita and “B” for salumi. A smile spread across the customer’s face as she signed the letter “A.”

“There’s nothing cooler than ordering your food in ASL,” said Melody Stein, who owns Mozzeria with her husband, Russ Stein. Melody’s lifelong dream was to open a restaurant. One challenge? Melody and Russ are both deaf. When Melody was younger, she was denied admission to culinary school because of her disability. But that didn’t stop her. She and her husband opened Mozzeria’s brick-and-mortar in San Francisco in 2011, and it quickly became a success.

But Melody doesn’t want deafness to be the first thing newcomers associate with her restaurant and food truck. “I want them to come in for the food,” she said through a sign language interpreter. The menu reflects both Russ’ and Melody’s identities: Cheese pizza, because Russ is a native New Yorker and that’s his favorite food, and Peking duck pizza, topped with hoisin sauce, spring onions, cucumbers, and sesame seeds — a nod to Melody’s Chinese heritage.

Mozzeria strives to create a deaf-friendly work environment. A mirror alerts Melody to customers walking through the door. Staff sign to each other through the kitchen’s glass doors. A new videophone from deaf-owned Convo “rings” with a flashing green light, and employees use sign language to communicate with an interpreter on the iPad screen.

Along with fulfilling Melody’s dream, Mozzeria has fulfilled the dreams of many other deaf people in the Bay Area. Mozzeria hires an entirely deaf staff of about 17 employees. The Steins are planning a second location in Austin, Texas and will eventually franchise nationwide to other deaf entrepreneurs, thanks to a grant from nonprofit Communication Services for the Deaf. For many employees, this is their first job. “It makes me feel good that I’m able to provide them with a job,” Melody said. “We don’t just … give you money; we see you grow as a person and succeed.”

Mozzeria is one of a handful of Bay Area restaurants offering employment and entrepreneurship opportunities to those with disabilities. The need is great. Seventy percent of deaf people are unemployed or underemployed, according to CSD. Many business owners wrongly assume that people with disabilities can’t perform the tasks of the job, or they don’t know how to accommodate their needs. But with the proper support, they can thrive. And for many, the food industry can be a gateway to personal and financial independence. But it’s not easy.

Giulietta Carrelli, owner of Trouble Coffee in West Oakland, has a simple phrase in her personal manifesto: Build Your Own Damn House. It’s the name of a combo on her menu, consisting of coffee, toast, and a coconut. But it’s also her cafe’s origin story.

Carrelli started working in coffee shops as a teenager. “People [ordering the house coffee] would say, ‘I’ll have a house …” Nobody said ‘coffee.’ I grew up listening to that while not having a safe home ... And then I started thinking … I wish I could just build my own damn house.”

At 16, she experienced her first disassociative episode. Carrelli said she’s “unemployable” due to her schizophrenia. So, she took her own advice and built her own damn house.

Trouble Coffee is that house, and the menu reflects her identity. As Pacific Standard and This American Life reported in 2014, Carrelli couldn’t stand to hear herself chewing during disassociative episodes, so she survived on coconuts. That’s how coconuts ended up on her menu in her first cafe, located in the Outer Sunset in San Francisco. She opened her West Oakland location in 2015.

Carrelli has several coping mechanisms for schizophrenia, such as installation art. “My mind goes a lot of different places, and sometimes it goes places that aren’t real,” she said. In her West Oakland shop, band T-shirts, records, and a concrete skateboard are reference points that help Carrelli stay grounded. “I walk into those places and I know they’re mine.”

Swimming in the ocean used to be a daily coping mechanism for Carrelli. But she was recently diagnosed with tardive dystonia, a neurological disorder that makes swimming and working at Trouble difficult. “My legs feel like concrete,” she said. “Schizophrenia, and owning Trouble, I can do it. …. How do you own a business, physically disabled?”

For some people with disabilities, more help is needed. Vocational programs help those with physical and developmental disabilities, such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome, find employment. San Leandro-based East Bay Innovations helps adults with developmental disabilities find “competitive employment” opportunities, meaning they receive the same pay and work the same jobs as people without disabilities.

“It’s ... this untapped workforce that employers are just starting to recognize has potential to fill valued roles in their businesses,” said Tom Heinz, the CEO of EBI. “It’s still very much a social issue that needs work and more exposure.”

According to Heinz, the unemployment rate of people with developmental disabilities is 75 to 85 percent in California.

Lorelie David, who has cerebral palsy, wanted a job where she could feed people and help kids. EBI helped her find the perfect fit as an assembly worker at Revolution Foods, an Oakland company that makes healthy school lunches. One of the most supportive aspects of EBI’s program is its job coaching. Job coaches discuss job duties with the employee’s manager and initially accompany the employee at work 100 percent of the time, scaling back as they become more independent. At first, David’s coach helped her prepare for shifts, access the online payroll system, and navigate relationships with co-workers.

Now, David’s coach comes in only once a week. David works on the fast-paced line, placing food on trays. She’s a calming force to co-workers who call her over in stressful times. But David can be in only one place at a time. “There’s only one Lorelie,” she said, laughing. David says the physical nature of her job helps her stay healthy. When she’s at home, she said, “[that’s when] my body hurts the most. My mind freezes.”

Another supportive program is Oakland Unified School District’s Young Adult Program, which serves students ages 18 to 22 with moderate to severe developmental and intellectual disabilities. Designed for adult students who do not meet the requirements for a high school diploma but instead have earned a high school certificate of completion, the program helps students gain independent living skills and hands-on vocational training. YAP teacher Adam Packer said the program has reached out to local restaurants for potential partnerships but has had limited success.

Robert Nguyen started at Oakland catering company Hil’s Cooking toward the end of his time in YAP. Owner Hilary Jacobs said Nguyen adapted quickly and was hired within a month. Nguyen said his favorite parts of the job are cooking and doing deliveries. His favorite dish to make? “Burgers and fries,” he said. Jacobs hopes to hire another employee through YAP. “Robert set a good tone … in the kitchen,” Jacobs said.

Lafayette organization Futures Explored offers paid culinary training for people with developmental disabilities through its catering business, Huckleberry Kitchen. Culinary coaches, who are culinary professionals trained to help people with disabilities, support the participants.

Deborah Austin’s first job was at Huckleberry Kitchen in 2012. Austin has a learning disability and learns best by demonstration, so her coaches provided one-on-one attention. In 2016, Austin became a culinary coach, the first with a disability.

As a coach, Austin develops additions to the menu. Austin loves Mexican food, so she’s made green enchiladas and plans to make chicken tacos. Her heritage is Polish, however, so for Huckleberry’s first heritage month, she plans to make pierogies.

The most rewarding part of being a coach? “Being able to see the confidence grow inside them is the best feeling in the world,” Austin said.

Not all restaurant owners have the time or resources to offer such training programs on their own. But Melody Stein of Mozzeria hopes that others will follow her and her husband’s lead by hiring more people with disabilities and using available resources for support.

Her advice to restaurant owners? “Please, give [deaf people] a chance; [you’ll] be amazed with their work ethic and abilities,” she said. “If you want ... resources — how I work with them, how I give them a reasonable accommodation — please contact us.”

This story was originally published in our sister publication East Bay Express.

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