Melody Stein, deaf since birth, always had a dream. She wanted to learn how to cook, so she could open her own restaurant, like her father before her. When she was 19, Melody applied for admission to the California Culinary Academy. But it was not to be. They told her she would be a real “liability”, explaining that if the students were in the kitchen making a big batch of soup, for instance, she wouldn’t be able to hear them shouting to get out of the way as they carried it. It might spill on her and she would get hurt. They told her they were sorry, but they couldn’t accept her application.
Despite that rejection, in 2011, Melody and her husband, Russ, set out to open their own restaurant in San Francisco. They would make authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza while providing the types of opportunities for Deaf professionals that both Melody and Russ had been denied. Their business would serve as an inspiration to the Deaf community.
But first, Melody needed to learn how to make incredible pizza. She and her mom, who acted as her interpreter, set off for Italy, where Melody learned different philosophies of authentic pizza-making. Her first pizza was delicious! Melody was ready. With her business plan in hand, she went to her regular bank in search of a small business loan to start her restaurant. But once again, Melody faced a closed door. Her bank refused to give her a loan, telling her far too many restaurants go under. How would Melody raise the money? She invited friends to come to her home so she could pitch them on her business. “I explained my vision of following Neapolitan tradition with some added Asian influence. I wanted unique things that people have never seen.” After tasting her pizza, her guests were interested in helping. “I told them I could become their bank, and give them 6% after five years, guaranteed.” That was an appealing offer for them. Melody got the loan she needed. She had five years to make a profit and pay it back.
“Our first year was like a honeymoon period with how many customers we attracted. We weren’t taking a cut at that time. We paid our staff, the food cost, utilities and rent. The first year, we didn’t make a lot. Only about $8,000 in profit. But I realized we were making it.” As Melody says, “It’s not because we’re Deaf. We have skills and knowledge. We can run a restaurant.”
But then, the honeymoon period ended as competition from new restaurants lured customers away. To keep her doors open, Melody needed to bring in more revenue, fast. “You need to be more creative and figure out what works. Maybe you can’t survive on profits from the restaurant alone.”
This is the remarkable story of how Melody and Russ pivoted. What they did to survive. How they used creativity, imagination and perseverance to make it all work, and how a determined entrepreneur founded an acclaimed pizza institution in spite of all the odds.
Melody Stein, deaf since birth, always had a dream. She wanted to learn how to cook,...
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