Apron maker finds profitable recipe catering to chefs

Posted Wednesday, May. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Ellen Bennett launched an apron company last year not knowing how to sew and not knowing how to run a business. Now she has the world, so to speak, by the strings.

“There was just the idea,” says the diminutive, consistently buoyant 25-year-old who also works two days a week as a cook at Providence restaurant in Hollywood, “that there could be a better [and better-looking] apron.”

Her own first apron had two slightly angled pockets — one for her Moleskine notebook and the other for an orange — and another specifically for her tweezers.

She started Hedley & Bennett with a pattern, one seamstress, orders that amounted to five aprons a week and her drive. Today she makes an average of 250 aprons a week with a team of sewers. Fans include celebrity chef and TV personality Alton Brown. Her aprons outfit the staff at Animal, Trois Mec and Ink, and for a growing cadre of others, including artists and barbers.

“Who doesn’t need an apron?” asks Bennett. “A potter, a painter, a cook, you name it, you could potentially use an apron.” She must be onto something. The Hammer Museum and downtown-cool retailer Poketo soon will sell exclusive Hedley & Bennett aprons, and Bennett says she’s on track to reach her sales goal of $1 million this year. Online orders are taken at www.hedley&bennett.com.

In her fashion district office, Bennett sits at a glass-topped desk that she shares with two other employees (they sit there in shifts). Bakers racks are stacked with aprons that are sold through her website, for as much as $120 apiece, in fabrics such as denim, chambray, linen and canvas. Each style is named for a person, place or fish (J. Dory, for example, made with caramel brown Japanese denim with red selvedge and featuring a towel/tongs loop).

There were a lot of mistakes along the way, she says, from straps that wrinkled in the wash to trying to keep orders in her head. “But I’ve always been very willing to take other people’s advice and act quickly on it,” she says. And when business was lean, she hustled. “I thought, ‘I’ve got employees to pay. How am I going to get an order?’” So she went to the farmers market and charmed chefs.

Much of her business is customized aprons for restaurant clients. How customizable can an apron be?

“I pick chefs’ brains about what they like and need,” says Bennett. Adjustable neck straps, extra-long ties, side-slit pockets, five pockets or no pockets, nickel or brass hardware, selvedge hems, polka dot denim, webbing in colors such as coral or cobalt.

“Once in a while I have to draw the line,” she says. One client wanted striped white-and-blue aprons with a red contrast pocket. “He was going to look like a patriotic flag. So I definitely said no!”

In general, no detail is too small. On a recent afternoon, Bennett drove her chocolate-brown Mini Cooper across downtown to Trim 4 Less, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse filled to the rafters with apparel accessories, to find matte black snaps for an order from Imperial Barber Shop. “I run my business like a kitchen,” says Bennett. “Nothing leaves my kitchen until it gets my stamp of approval.”

Bennett grew up in Glendale, Calif., and attended private school in La Canada, Calif. At 18, she moved to Mexico City to attend culinary school. “My parents didn’t want me to go, so I had to do everything on my own,” she says, which she did by landing a job as a TV host, announcing the winning numbers for Mexico’s national lottery and talking sports as the token “girl” on a show about American football on TV Azteca. “You know, I could say ‘Oakland Raiders’ in a perfect English accent.”

After graduating from cooking school, she traveled around the world with a ticket from her airline pilot father. “I learned that the world is not such a big place. And so starting a business, no big deal.”

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