Any thoughts on what a fair rent increase might be for a retail space in WeHo these days? Would you say 4%? Maybe 7%?
Try ten times that amount, and you will learn what true South African grit, honest-to-goodness real entrepreneurial spirit, looks like.
“Our landlord raised the rent, our rent, 70%,” said Jeffrey Apter, co-owner of Hedley’s Restaurant, which is on the eastern side of Robertson Boulevard, between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue, told me recently.
“Seven-zero?” I ask.
“Seven. Zero,” Apter replied. “Yes.”
Apter, 55, is from Johannesburg, and every time he says the word “yes,” which is quite often, usually to emphasize a point, it has a unique, cozy Down Under ring to it: “Yiss” – soft “i” with a slight hiss at the end.
Apter and his business partners (brother Hedley – from which the business gets its name – and his wife) responded to their business challenge by spending a ton of money and a lot of time renovating. It reopened in May 2016 with its signature still-casual feel, but it now has a much more upscale look, perhaps like the living room of a good friend with a vacation home in modern Mendocino or Martha’s Vineyard.
Despite the rent increase, Apter tells me: “Change is not all bad. The change is good. The neighborhoods are busier. The restaurants are busier.”
But here’s the rub. “We are still a local, neighborhood restaurant,” Apter said. “We don’t have cocktails. We have beer and wine. So we can only appeal to a smaller section of the population.”
This matters because, in Apter’s view, WeHo has become a destination. “Since 2010 it’s essentially become ‘Beverly Hills Adjacent.’ So the demographics have changed quite a bit. The amount of money coming into WeHo has changed.” And, consequently, “the rents have gone very, very high.”
“We couldn’t compete without a restaurant having something that made it feel nice,” Apter said referring to the inspiration for the redesign. “It was Catch that was opening, Gracias Madre round the corner…Craig’s…all these restaurants have very nice atmospheres.”
Apter moved to the United States in 1987. “The situation in South Africa wasn’t good. Nelson Mandela hadn’t been released from prison yet. No one knew what the turnout was going to be,” he said.
After a stint as a gemologist – yes, you read correctly – Apter studied at the Gemological Institute of America and got into diamond sales, which was, uh, not the right setting for him.
“So I started bartending,” Apter said. And after completing “a restaurant management course at the New School in New York,” he followed Hedley to Canada. “My brother, who has always been a chef, moved to Toronto.” In 1998, the brothers, with Hedley now married, moved to San Francisco to cut their teeth in the food business by working in and owning catering companies.
But L.A. beckoned. Opening in January 2003, Hedley’s now employs a staff of 12, and the brothers split management duties. Apter said his younger brother “does the kitchen, deciding what’s on the menu…and I do everything in the front,” bookkeeping, the business side of things “and what not.”
WeHo was one of their target locations. When fate intervened and their current space opened up, they snagged it. “In those days there were factories on the other side of the street,” Apter said, reflecting on how much more affordable the area was then for small businesses.
Hedley’s serves three meals a day. “The only shift we’re closed is on a Sunday evening,” Apter said. “We need a little rest [and] it’s essentially a bar night in WeHo.” (The Abbey, anyone?)
Healthy Californian is how Apter describes Hedley’s menu. Although he serves consciously raised chicken and fish (without antibiotics and growth hormone as often as possible), one of the biggest surprises for him is how vegan choices have just exploded. “Even people who are not vegan, we are able to sell them vegan dishes,” Apter said. “That never used to be.”
Did Hedley’s renovation pay off? Yes. “Our wine sales have doubled,” Apter said.
There is a lot of hard-won pride in that statement. “L.A. has always been a city that likes big places. People want to be seen,” Apter said. But Hedley’s “is a different thing, a different vibe.”
“There’s room for small, more intimate [spaces], especially with the fact that so many of us are on social media almost constantly. “That’s taking people away from the essence of connectivity. In a small [restaurant] it’s easier to connect.”
Hedley’s is a story of reinvention and hard work. “We’ve remained all these years,” Apter said, “because we’ve put all our money into it. We’ve invested everything. We built a business. We built up a following.”
Apter said he now is in a bit of a pickle. “We need a bigger space,” he said, “but it’s very hard to find a bigger space for the right price. The right everything.”
Does that mean a larger Hedley’s is on the way? Apparently. “We are looking to expand in the very near future.”
640 N. Robertson Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069