How These Founders Reinvented the Apron and Won Over Celebrity Chefs
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It’s about as humdrum an item of apparel as you can get. But in the hands of an impassioned Los Angeles-based designer, the humble apron has become the cornerstone for a successful business.
Hedley & Bennett (H&B) got its start in 2012, when Ellen Bennett—then a line cook for trendy L.A. restaurants Providence and Bäco Mercat, and a personal chef—finally had enough. “An apron is something that every single chef uses besides a knife,” says Bennett, who juggled all three jobs while launching her company. “It was this thing that we all wore, and it was ugly and gross and weird.”
Unlike the traditional garment, an apron from H&B (the “Hedley” comes from Bennett’s grandfather) features quality cloth sourced and test-washed for durability; adjustable straps with 1-inch-thick webbing to prevent cutting into the wearer’s neck; brass hardware; and well-placed pockets reinforced with bar tacks to avoid ripping. The aprons utilize American-made materials and are assembled locally at H&B’s building in downtown Los Angeles.
H&B now supplies aprons for more than 700 restaurant clients worldwide. They’ve been spotted on such luminaries as Thomas Keller, Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali, as well as chefs at the SpaceX and Google campuses. The aprons were developed (and are constantly being improved) with the help of Bennett’s chef-clients. During the company’s early days, Bennett sat down with every chef— including Michael Voltaggio, Top Chef star and owner of L.A.’s ink restaurant—to learn about their specific requirements. “Every single meeting was a learning experience for me,” Bennett says. “Together, we developed something based on what you truly need and want in a kitchen, as opposed to some far-fetched idea that comes from some corporate headquarters.”
The young founder made initial contact with many chefs in 2012 at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, a premier West Coast event that draws 8,000 attendees. Those two days yielded top-tier future customers, in turn spurring greater demand for Bennett’s aprons.
Only a subtle ampersand patch at the front of the apron declares an H&B design. “Back then, nobody knew about us. It was like, ‘Oh, you have a Hedley & Bennett apron?’ It was almost cultish. You knew about it and other good chefs knew about it, but other people didn’t,” Bennett says.
Now it’s an open secret that’s got folks with a culinary bent craving an apron. The company offers more than 45 styles, priced from $55 to $126 and constructed of European linen and other fine fabrics. The aprons are sold online at the company website and through several e-tailers, including One Kings Lane, as well as in gourmet and design shops across the U.S. and in Canada and New Zealand. H&B projected 2014 sales of $1.5 million.
The company has expanded into linen napkins, chef caps and chef coats. Next up: custom products geared toward other specialities, such as aprons for gardeners, tattoo artists, potters and painters.