"Hedley & Bennett is not a company," the founder and owner Ellen Bennett explained to me over the phone on Friday. "It’s my playground to improve on all the things that bug me about other companies. I think you should love companies that you buy from, not just their products."
Which on one hand is nonsense: Hedley & Bennett is very much a company—a popular, successful apron-making company (we sell two of their designs, one of which is exclusive to Food52, in the Shop). But on the other hand, "playground" is actually a much more accurate word for what's going on in their headquarters, a warehouse that Ellen snatched up and restored to serve as the company's factory just last summer.
Against whitewashed walls and a gleaming poured concrete floor, it's the splashes of unabashed color that hook you first: a big yellow tube slide like a piece of upright cavatappi; a showroom featuring all Hedley & Bennett's latest apron designs hung up on custom pegboards and shelves; and, at closer look, a zipline that you hold onto with two hands, Kevin McAllister-style, leading from the top of a treehouse down to the main community gathering space.
There are actually two indoor treehouses, one of which serves as Ellen's office (she calls it a "clubhouse"), and another (the one with the slide) for customer service employees. It's no wonder that Ellen's primary inspiration for the space was Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory: "I watched the movies to get ideas of what I wanted," she explained.
At a whopping 14,000 square feet, this playground is no sandbox. Located in a town called Vernon, the building is separated from Los Angeles proper by a freeway, which means the world whirs by a little more quietly than it does on Ventura. "I always wanted to have a factory," Ellen explains, as if it's every little kid's life dream.
And despite all the overt playfulness, a factory it is. Upon signing the lease and diving headlong into restoring it (a sprint of a renovation, lasting about two months), Ellen divided the space up into two distinct halves: the side with the slide, zipline, and showroom space, and an incredible equally-sized workroom for the production team, who handles everything from designing to stitching up each apron.
The playground side, of course, is where everyone naturally gathers. But Ellen didn't realize exactly how welcoming it would turn out to be.
"I definitely imagined it becoming a very community-oriented space," she explains, "but I didn’t even consider it would get to the place it's gotten to now, that I would be able to open my doors and throw a thousand-person party." She's referring to a Shake Shack party she threw in the space recently, with 1000 friends of the company showing up to partake.
The colorful, open nature of factory (and their 50-car parking lot that can be tapped when the weather's good—and the weather's usually good in Los Angeles) make it perfect for hosting: "It’s a breeding ground for friends, and so now we have food trucks who come!"
What makes aprons and parties come together? Food, of course. At another event last year, Ellen teamed up with 100 Layer Cake, a wedding blog, and invited every creative in the local wedding industry over for dinner. Here's how it went down, in her words:
Instead of sitting down to a table, we just slapped aprons on everyone and were like, "We’re going to make gnocchi!" and had a gigantic cooking class and it was really hands-on and beautiful and that connects people so much more than just standing around.
When Ellen speaks, it's with wonder—at how the company's grown, at how well it's loved, at the fact that she gets to do what she does everyday. She loves emerging from her treehouse to stand in the center of the warehouse, one level up, overlooking both production and funsville, and marvel at how it's all happening.
"The Apron Squad is essentially a family, a bandwagon," she explains, "and this is the homefront and the home base."
And it's because of her, of course. Ellen started Hedley & Bennett because she was bored with the look and quality of chef's uniforms, so she made better ones (Mario Batali, April Bloomfield, and David Chang wear her aprons, among countless others on what she calls "The Apron Squad"). In keeping, all the designs in this factory—like the pegboard wall and geometric shelving units—were her ideas, brought to life by helping hands: ("My contractor was basically a treehouse company," she confesses.)
And with an attitude like hers, ebullient and infectious, there's only going to be more exciting ways to bring people into the space as time goes on:
I love helping—just the world "help" drives me so much. Anything from getting someone an apron to connecting them to someone who might help with the blog they just launched. Having this space where I can do both really makes me feel great.