My company used to make aprons. Now we're only making face masks

We’ve had more than 110,000 masks donated to help people on the front lines.
Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

Crisis has a way of shining light on the things we take for granted. Of laying bare the invisible infrastructures that keep our world afloat. Of reminding us first of our fragility as individuals, and then inevitably, of the strength of our communities. As a young American business owner living and working in Los Angeles, I’d never given much thought to face masks. It took a crisis for me to understand that this ignorance had been a privilege, and that I had the resources — and a responsibility — to step up.

Ellen Bennett, the founder of Hedley & Bennett, and her husband, Casey Caplowe.Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

Over the past eight years, I’d built up my company Hedley & Bennett, producing aprons and kitchen workwear out of our factory in Downtown L.A. Restaurants have been integral to my business since day one, and I was gutted as I saw chefs around the world begin to shut their doors. For a few days, I watched, paralyzed with sadness and fear for their uncertain futures ... and for my own.

On March 15, when L.A.’s shutdown order would go into effect, I went to my office to round up necessary things and prepare for a long time away. Checking my phone, a tweet from fashion designer Cristian Siriano caught my eye: New York governor Andrew Cuomo had announced a shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, and Siriano was activating his sewing team to meet the need.

I glanced over to the factory floor beside me and realized I had everything we needed here to help, too. We had a fully vertical factory in L.A., with rows and rows of sewing machines, everything from single needle, overlock, bar tacking, racks of durable 100% cotton chambrays and poplins and a product development team that was quick and nimble and accustomed to modifying product for constant improvement. We got to work immediately and never looked back.

Hedley & Bennet employees hard at work on the factory floor.Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

One of our mottos at Hedley & Bennett has always been "Wake up and fight" — and we now had the opportunity to put this ethos to work. That afternoon, I called my friend Dr. Robert Cho, a pediatric surgeon and chief of staff at Shriners Hospital, and over a few FaceTime sessions, we worked out a design that met his standards. We designed the masks to be used with a filter, such as a HEPA filter, inserted within the fabric. They are not direct substitutes for N95, surgical or procedural masks.

Hedley & Bennett's assorted "Wake Up & Fight" masks.Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

I tapped my sewers and we hammered out our prototype, spoke to our vendors and supply chain, sent out the message to our community and, within 24 hours, launched our “Wake Up & Fight Mask” with a buy-one, donate-one model on our website. Urgency somehow allowed for us to put a month's worth of work into a single day. The world around us felt frozen, but we were sprinting, and the response was torrential.

By the end of that weekend, we’d revamped our factory floor to start cranking out masks as fast as we could, and we’ve been racing to keep up ever since. The team's action and initiative sparks with a fury I've never seen before. We now have machines that are 6 feet apart, temperatures are checked and tracked, our once very welcoming showroom and test kitchen have been turned into a secondary shipping department with every surface being used to count, sort and get orders out the door. Everyone in the building wears a mask, of course. This is our new normal.

A Hedley & Bennett sewer making masks.Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

With the help of our community, we’ve had more than 110,000 masks donated to help people on the front lines. This effort, so far, has helped create or save jobs for over 150 workers, partners and vendors who are solely focused on making the Wake Up & Fight Masks. (My head of production says it’s more like double that, but I’m being conservative.)

Another significant change to our business is that, as it stands, we are only making face masks — not small batches, but tens of thousands daily, a volume that I could not have wrapped my head around until I started listening and talking to nurses, hospitals and chiefs of staff. Not only that, as the days passed, we started hearing of more friends and family members directly affected by COVID-19.

A Hedley & Bennett employee packaging masks to be shipped out.Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

When I was a kid, I had my appendix removed at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. They got in touch last week, in need of thousands of masks immediately. Man, did it feel good to say yes to that. And that was only possible because of the volume we are, by some miracle, producing and the volume of units being donated.

We are also hearing from so many regular folks: parents who need to go to the pharmacy, kids who want to walk their dog and feel safe, grocery store workers (who deserve a whole lot more than just a mask). As the founder and CEO of Hedley & Bennett, I feel unspeakably proud that these customers’ first interaction with my company is through the Wake Up & Fight Mask. Along with our community of chefs, restaurateurs and home cooks, H&B’s tens of thousands of new friends have spread the word and donations and enthusiasm has reached every corner of the country.

Nurses from the Hospital of Central Connecticut wearing their donated Hedley & Bennett masks.

Because of them, Hedley & Bennett has proudly made donations to the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Cedar Sinai, Shriners, NYU Langone Medical Center and other hospitals around the country. Most recently, we've joined up with World Central Kitchen and GoFundMe fundraising effort "Help Feed the Frontline Fighting COVID-19" to keep their volunteers safe as they get masks, food and other essential supplies to local hospitals and healthcare professionals on the front lines of the crisis. Our friends at Vans have jumped in with us and are donating backpacks, socks, beanies, hoodies and more to work alongside masks to help those in need.

Bennett surrounded by masks on her factory floor.Anna Maria Zunino Noellert

All of this has been quite a ride for our company. From battling global supply chain contractions to scaling to meet the massive demand of this moment, this experience has given us the opportunity to journey outside our norm and charge into the future. It has been an honor and a privilege to support so many amazing workers — people who show up every day, putting their heart into what they do to make the world better and safer for the rest of us.

For as long as they wake up and fight, we’ll be doing the same.