How 2 Mozza Waitresses Brought Restaurant Fans Together With An Online Comedy Show
Comedians Jen Eden and Elyssa Phillips were working what should have been a typical Sunday dinner shift at Osteria Mozza, when the city of Los Angeles ordered restaurants to shut their dining rooms. As they wrapped up dinner service, they realized the order had effectively left them and their coworkers unemployed.
"To say it was devastating is an understatement," Eden said. "All I could say to Elyssa was, 'Look, we're in this together. We're not the only ones getting laid off. Everybody is getting laid off.'"
With the Mozza restaurant group closed, the two had plenty of time to workshop ideas for a socially distanced, online comedy show, but they had trouble settling on the right concept -- until Eden saw it in a dream.
"I scrawled on a piece of paper, 'What if we did a show where we're in our uniforms, and we're connecting with our regulars?'" Eden said.
At the beginning of last month, they launched Mozza Mealtime, a weekly 30-minute livestreamed show, aiming to celebrate Mozza while connecting patrons, staff, and fans.
RESTAURANT SERVICE VIA ZOOM
Their first episode received what they described as a huge response, with staff, guests, managers, and past employees checking in from around the United States. They received a constant stream of messages throughout the show, with hundreds of comments.
Modeled after a late-night talk show, Mozza Mealtime opens with Eden and Phillips chatting with viewers as they get settled in. That's followed by a monologue filled with foodie in-jokes, interviews with restaurant staff, and the occasional cocktail. Eden provides musical accompaniment on a Fender ukulele and an accordion, performing the show's plucky theme song and using her musical improv chops to respond to comments in real time.
"We missed working at Mozza, and we missed seeing our family -- both our family that we work with and our family that comes in and visits us all the time," Phillips said. (Restaurant work is hard, on-your-feet labor, with long hours. The bonds among employees can be incredibly tight; there's a reason the shared staff dinner is called "family meal.")
The show plays up their disparate personalities, with Jen's bubbly side and Elyssa's cynicism pushing each other on -- in one segment, Jen sings what the servers say to customers, while Elyssa translates to their own internal frustrations about customers asking for more ice or not understanding the menu.
PROTESTS AND LOOTING
Their fourth episode, on May 30, marked a turning point. One of the restaurant's owners, Joe Bastianich of MasterChef fame, was scheduled to be their guest. They considered cancelling the show due to the rallies sweeping the country after the police killing of George Floyd.
"When the world is falling to pieces -- literally, when black people don't have the same rights as other people -- it's like, I don't know if I can do this right now," Eden said.
She and Phillips decided that rather than cancel, they would give viewers a distraction from all the more serious events happening in the world, while also addressing the George Floyd protests. That night, they encouraged their audience to make donations while connecting with other viewers.
"I would never want us to seem tone deaf, like we don't know what's going on in the world -- but in a way, being a comedian, being an actor, an artist, we're here to give back, we're here to put a smile on your face," Eden said on the show. "Not to throw a blindfold over, but if you want to feel a little humanity, a little connection -- we're here."
Bastianich, based out of New York City, talked with the hosts about the unexpectedly fast announcement of restaurants reopening in L.A., the difficulty of adding takeout/delivery service to a traditionally dine-in restaurant, and more.
You can watch their show from that night here:
After the show, Phillips received a text from a friend: "Are you watching the news?"
Phillips wasn't, but she soon learned that looters had broken into MelroseMAC, the Mac repair store next door to Mozza. She felt helpless as she watched events unfold on the news.
Phillips started texting with her manager. He told her the restaurant would be fine and that Mozza is its people, not its building.
REBUILDING AND REOPENING
The next day, Phillips showed up at the "Mozzaplex" to see the damage and to help clean up. She cleaned up liquor and wine bottles alongside chef and owner Nancy Silverton, who had recovered from coronavirus after being diagnosed in late March.
"We are a restaurant group run by a bunch of badass women," Phillips said. "Nancy was there with her hair did and her flowers and she was like, 'We have insurance, we'll be OK. Moving on.'"
That Wednesday, Silverton and her partner, Michael Krikorian, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times encouraging people not to weep for the restaurant, but to think about George Floyd and his family.
That message was overshadowed as Silverton and Krikorian faced an onslaught of criticism (including from L.A. Times staffers such as deputy food editor Andrea Chang and columnists Lucas Kwan Peterson and Frank Shyong) for describing coronavirus as "that Wuhan, China, bat thing" and for referring to looters as "roaches."
Comments mentioning Rodney King's "Can we all get along" moment from the 1992 L.A. riots and statements like, "How many of the losers wrecking Melrose even knew the name of the man the protest was about?" also didn't sit well with some readers.
Silverton offered an apology on Twitter, though her account has since been deleted. "Journalist Michael Krikorian & I wrote an Op-Ed in the L.A.Times, an attempt to keep the media's focus ON George Floyd, NOT looting damage at my restaurant. Some of it, however, was hurtful to many. That was NOT my intent at all and we deeply and sincerely apologize."
Eden and Phillips declined to comment on the op-ed, other than saying via email that they believe Silverton is "a really strong and awesome lady, and we are glad she is our boss."
Phillips said she knows the structure that houses Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza, Chi Spacca, and Mozza2Go is just a building, but it's also the place where she worked for the past six years. During the ongoing effects of the coronavirus, she said it has also been a lifeline for her and others, providing free meals and "essential supplies" to laid-off restaurant workers until Silverton's COVID-19 diagnosis.
"It really saved us a lot of money on groceries," Eden said. "There was no unemployment coming in, no money, so it's like, 'OK, let's just eat at Mozza.'"
But after that late May show, Mozza Mealtime went on hiatus as Eden and Phillips debated whether this is the time to do comedy -- an issue other comedians have grappling with. Ultimately, they decided that they wanted to continue doing the show in order to spread positivity, light, and love each week, according to Phillips.
With Osteria Mozza having recently reopened, they're working on reformatting the show and launching a welcome back lunch episode on Monday, June 22 at 1 p.m.
On their social media channels, the hosts have started directing followers to support Black-owned restaurants, including linking to a selection of resources. They said they plan to direct viewers to charities that support Black-owned restaurants (they hadn't yet selected the charities at press time). Phillips, who has experience running social media accounts, has also been volunteering to help Black-owned restaurants with their social media.
They're eager to keep the show going and to continue bringing their community together.
"About 40 people showed up [the night before Mozza was looted], which means those 40ish people wanted to connect," Phillips said. "And if people want to connect, that's so important right now."