Meet Ellen Bennett, "Apron Lady" and head honcho of Hedley & Bennett. We sat down with her recently, which, to be fair, feels nothing remotely like sitting. She’s fiery and brimming – spilling over, really – with almost frenetic passion for the work she does. One visit to the company’s social media pages is all you need to see that the lead “Apron Lady” is steering one brightly-colored, sleep-comes-later ship.
Hedley & Bennett is a Los Angeles-based company designing and manufacturing customized aprons, worn throughout the country and abroad. Conceived and entirely produced in downtown Los Angeles, these aprons exemplify the functional beauty of an American-made product. Initially designed for chefs, Hedley & Bennett recently launched a new line for kids and can also be found in various boutique stores around the country.
Ellen’s professional story began in a steamy, hectic kitchen, and her current chapters take place in a bright downtown Los Angeles design workspace, all the company’s own. Starting out as a hard-working chef, Ellen saw a litany of issues with the standard, poorly constructed kitchen garment she wore everyday. Like many other entrepreneurs, she set out to fix the problem, address the need. Now, Ellen’s love of culinary creation translates to her designs of Hedley & Bennett aprons, made to stand the test of the rigorous kitchen environment while as beautiful as plated gourmet food.
Hedley & Bennett present a bright face, but their journey includes stumbles as well as triumphs. Ellen’s confident personality allows her to take each day, each challenge, and each achievement like a true entrepreneur and a professional risk taker.
What are you working on today?
I had my graphic designer here for two hours, and we were working on our new shopping bag – deciding what it’s going to look like. So our vendor came by and told us what works best. We normally just use craft paper or a recycling bag, but now we’re making a Hedley & Bennett bag. My to-do list is really chunks of other people’s to-do lists. We have an apron coming out with Mario Batali, so we’re working out the last details on that.
Where do you find your drive?
There’s a quote that I love. I think it’s Thomas Edison’s, and it says 99 percent persistence, 1 percent success. I take it as the capacity to have endurance despite all reasons not to – that’s where success comes from. And it’s very true. We've had so many times where sh*t has hit the fan so hard, and you just have to be like, ‘O.K., let’s figure it out. Let’s keep going.’ My emotional connection to my company is strong, as opposed to just viewing it as a business. I feel over time, though, I have stopped being overly emotional about my business.
That’s probably one of the core reasons your business has so much authenticity: your emotional investment as well as being a businesswoman. Let’s talk about the apron itself. Your aprons are both visually unique and utilitarian. What was your initial goal when designing your own aprons?
It was a combination of: 'we’re making incredible food; why aren’t we wearing incredible outfits to represent – to the same level – what we’re creating?' You stand taller when you feel good in something you’re wearing. That could come across as superficial, which is far from what Hedley & Bennett is. It’s more a personal dignity than a call for attention. Prior to starting this business, I looked at the apron and thought ‘Wow, what a sh*t garment. Why don’t we make it better?’ When I decide I’m going to do something I just go for it. So it wasn’t as though I set out to be an apron mogul. I just said, ‘I’m going to f*ing do this! I don’t know where it’s going to go.’
That’s certainly a defining characteristic of many entrepreneurs: fearlessness in the face of extreme uncertainty.
Leaping out and creating it as your falling. You’re creating a landscape as you’re jumping out the window.
The layout, or, as you call it, the anatomy of the apron, is very specific. Can you describe some of the features and why you decided to add them to the aprons?
A lot of the design was pretty instinctive. Just knowing the fabric and weight of the fabric I needed in the kitchen. There are silly things I wanted to include, like a strap being adjustable and not having to untie the knot, which is standard in an apron. Our straps are flat and lie properly. They don’t cut into your neck. It’s 100 percent from an American company, because I’m all about supporting American made.
It’s a little bit of a battle though, because you see this apron and you think, ‘Oh my god, why would I pay 80 dollars for this?’ Getting the entire picture behind every apron – knowing how much detail goes into making them – is important. Clients learn that it takes 40 people to make an apron in our factory. We’ve been trying to figure out how to communicate all this to someone who is just looking at the apron in the store.
But once you know, all the details more than justify the cost. A chef would know that.
Right, and we evolve the design. We are constantly updating things. When clients tell us something isn’t working we immediately look into changing it. Let’s say we get a fabric that bleeds - we will wipe it. We’ll reach out to others and ask, ‘Hey did yours bleed? We’re going to send you another one.’
It’s really nice you have an open dialogue with your clients. You also collaborate with restaurants to develop custom designs. Why is customization so important?
I think everybody wants to be unique. Everyone wants something special. We definitely get a lot of people who love our current designs and just choose those. If the restaurant is pink, maybe we give them pink straps. Or if the walls are green, we make a little green accent. Going above and beyond what people expect is something I’ve always loved to do, which is kind of why I love cooking. When I put a dish in front of someone and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful!’ I love that second. That feeling right there. Doing that same thing in an apron, by going just a bit above and beyond what they’re expecting, is so nice. They love the apron, but now it’s also special to them.
You only work with manufacturers in America. Did you make that decision before you started the company or along the way?
I decided that at the beginning. I never liked the idea of doing non-American made. The company is here and it’s local, so I need to make it custom. Therefore, I need to work with people nearby, and that just became part of my business model. I didn’t even try it any other way. When you start, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to do American-made.’ But actually, it’s easy. It’s hard to become legitimate American-made. And it’s O.K. to start off scrappy. Sometimes people think they need $1 million to start a company or they need 20 logistics people. It was just me in my living room. It was extremely scrappy, and we are still scrappy. But a benefit of being scrappy is that you’re resourceful. You come up with ideas, and you come up with concepts that you otherwise wouldn’t because you know too much about the right way. If you’re just navigating blindly and you don’t see a giant wave coming, you’re just like, ‘Let’s do this!’
You’re forced to look for a creative solution.
Totally. Huge brands go to little designers in the middle of nowhere to get their inspiration. The big people have so much money and resources… they have to talk to their PR/media/200-people team. Really amazing ideas usually come from a single person, and then it’s developed from other people helping them grow it. So, I said I’m going to make this American-made, and I’m going to grow it. That was from day one.
Where do you draw inspiration for your artistry?
There’s no specific place. I just try to be as observant as humanly possible with everything in life. Sometimes you’re just charging through life and you’re not looking around you, and you just have to stop and take a look. Soak it in. It’s just about observing things and then going through my own mind’s rolodex. I’m going around sponging ideas and not knowing necessarily which one will go with the other.
One of my favorite mentors and uncles always used to tell me the way to keep a business alive was to never just have two or three sales going. He said keep throwing the fishing line out, and some will bite. If this one doesn’t, that one will. But you’ll never have a scarcity of it, so you’ll never feel a scared moment. And that’s what I do. I make a tremendous amount of everything. So even if we lose some, we have 200 others that we are working on. You can’t be single-track minded.
Favorite adage about entrepreneurs?
It’s a beautiful beast of undertaking. I think a lot of people look to us and think we’re so successful. Even I still think I have so much to do. Don’t compare yourself to others. Every person at every level is striving to do something more and is not happy where they are. Appreciate the accomplishments you make along the way, the big and the little. You also have to recognize that you’re going to want more. But that’s sort of why you’re an entrepreneur. You’re never going to say, ‘I’m good, I’m going to retire.’ You say, ‘What’s next?’ It never ends. We are here to wake up and fight everyday until we aren’t here anymore.