Ellen Bennett, Founder, Hedley & Bennett
Downtown Los Angeles
Interview by Laura Piety
Ellen Bennett is one of those unique individuals whose chatty affability and relaxed candor makes for a great interview. When you sit down with her there’s no stopping the conversation. She’s precise, excitable and frank all in one sitting. She also appears to have an inexhaustible amount of energy, and it’s this energy and likability, coupled with sheer work ethic that’s led to her astounding business rise in the past 18 months. Ellen heads up Hedley & Bennett, the apron company du jour, whose designs have been adopted by (some of the best) restaurants across Los Angeles, and beyond. By appropriating the simple and the bespoke with carefully chosen hardware, customizable detailing, reinforced bar tacked pockets and fabrics such a selvage denim and canvas, the line is garnering fans pretty quickly. Less than two years into the business, it’s genuinely en route to becoming the Apple of kitchen apparel, fulfilling her no-longer-impossible dream.
We met Ellen in the Hedley & Bennett showroom in downtown LA and chatted about the entrepreneurial company that’s truly nailed utilitarian luxe. The office is housed in a large building on S Broadway Street, part of the more distinct fashion district, a hub central to the West Coast’s apparel industry and spanning 90 blocks in the area. Parking across the street, I marveled at the eclectic nature of this area of the city, a unique mish-mash federal buildings, high-end restaurants, broken down valet lots, disused waste ground, upscale loft apartments and makeshift homeless shelters, all dotted by neon signs, skyscrapers, an awful amount of concrete and blazing sunshine. As I said hello to the doorman and rode the Art Deco elevator I couldn’t help but wonder about the diverse selection of people working throughout the building, and the stories they must have. No doubt Ellen, with her penchant for people, knew a few of them:
Firstly, introduce yourself and your business.
I’m Ellen Bennett and I’m the Founder and Designer of Hedley & Bennett, an apron company based in Los Angeles.
Can you give a little background on your story and how that relates to what you’re up to now?
Well, to start, my favorite store is Home Depot. When I was younger I’d go there with my mother’s credit card and get cans of paint and pieces of wood to re-design her house when she went out of town. She’d come back and her living room would be painted brown or the kitchen, green. I’d redecorated everything by the time I was fifteen.
Did she love that or hate it?
She was so willing to just let me do it! I feel like she helped me grow as an artist. One day I sponge painted her entire bedroom yellow! She was like ‘Oh that’s cute’. (She mimics her Mom’s Mexican accent in a sweet nonchalant manner).
All that to say, my interest in design started when I was younger. Later, I decided I wanted to be a chef. I got a job at Providence, where I worked for three years and that’s where Hedley & Bennett was born. It was a combination of my love of cooking and design smashed together.
Did you have any business experience to add to this mix?
When I was fifteen, my parents were divorced and I filled the role of ‘father’ a little bit. My Mum was a nurse and she worked twelve hour days so one of the reasons I started cooking was to prepare meals for her when she got home. I also paid all the bills, wrote the checks and paid the mortgage. I was her right hand woman when it came to her finances! I think this introduction to business and finance at a young age helped me. When H&B started I was already used to it.
How has the brand identity of Hedley & Bennett evolved? Did working in Providence help inform it?
[Michael Cimarusti’s Providence restaurant has two Michelin Stars and was recently awarded 2013’s Best Restaurant by the LA Times.]
I think working in Providence definitely affected it. They pay a lot of attention to detail at there, nothing is overlooked. In the same way, I’ll see the tiniest little thing on a apron that others don’t. I think that minute attention to detail is something that’s been ingrained into me from working there. The clean lines and shapes, dignified dishes, the ability to be beautiful without being avant-garde or crazy, and the clean but gorgeous feel have also influenced me. The simplicity I learned from Providence is crucial to what my brand is now.
There are little details to my aprons that make them special. It’s like a beautiful shirt from Theory, you look at it and it’s just a white shirt- but then you get up close and it’s like, ‘the shape, the seam, the cut!’
How have you managed such rapid success? What have been some of your learning points?
Haha- there have definitely been some moments where I’ve thought ‘this is insane!!’ But even before I started Hedley & Bennett I always juggled 2, 3 or 4 jobs! When I was at Providence I was also a line cook at Lazy Ox, a private chef for a family, and I was still helping my Mum sort her finances!
I have always loved multi-tasking. As a kid I was raised always looking at what was next. I never had a chance to grab coffee with friends! It was always go study, go to the job, what class was I working on… I had a high impact life and so again, that’s evolved into what my life is now. I work really hard, around 80-85 hours a week. I get in at 9.30am and I leave by 9.30pm at night. I work at the weekends and I do the Farmers Market! And I was still at Providence up until 3 months ago, when H&B already had an office, employees and payroll! I loved it so much, but I had to let it go. It was also my safety net, but it was the right time to leave the restaurant. Even my chef, Michael, was like ‘Ellen, come on, go do your thing,’ which was awesome for him to encourage me.
So how do you sustain yourself? Or do you just keep going?!
I definitely attempt to exercise when I can, and I try to eat well! I’ve always worked hard for other people, so now I’m working hard for myself. I get up and go because I love it, and I’m seeing it grow. I started it by myself from nothing, and to see where it is now is really fruitful. I don’t even care about money, I’m just enjoying sitting in my office! I used to dream about having an office when I was working out of my house, and now I actually have one, complete with computers and a trash can!
Honestly, it’s just fun to be living it. It’s really hard work but there’s great stuff that comes from it. I can walk into almost any restaurant that sells my aprons and they’re so helpful, kind and totally take care of me. I also get to travel, all over the States and I just went to China. At first it was permanent hard work but now it’s hard work mixed with great opportunities like meeting a hero of mine, René Redzepi.
Let’s talk about your products. How did you come up with your first pattern and did you have any clothing design experience?
No, I only had the design experience I mentioned before. My mind likes to imagine things as they could be, and how they can be made better. I think that helped too. But basically, I spoke to a designer friend of mine - he was a carpenter and a sewer - and told him I wanted to make aprons. I asked him to help me make my pattern in return for making him dinner. He agreed. I had an idea of what it should look like and I went downtown and found some pretty fabrics that felt good. It was just instinctive. I knew the fabric couldn’t be too heavy, but also needed to be durable. I just founds things that, in my mind, were right. He then made me that sample and from there life just aligned itself.
About a week later Josef Centeno at Bäco Mercat [the same chef who she’d worked with at Lazy Ox before he moved on to open Bäco] told me he had someone who was making his aprons. I basically convinced him to do his apron order with me instead. I saw the opportunity and took it, I told him I’d gotten my DBA the week before and so I had a company! I altered everything the other person was offering just a little to make the offer more attractive. He agreed and ordered 40 aprons on the spot. I was literally standing in my chef’s uniform in his kitchen persuading him to buy my aprons that didn’t exist! I didn't even have a sewer. I had two weeks. So I really had to get out there.
I think it takes opportunities like that to get up and running otherwise it can drag on. It takes a real paid job to go. That lit the fire. After that I had my foot in the door and couldn’t let it shut. I went full throttle.
Where do you source your fabrics now?
From all over the world, literally. Probably 60% are from Japan. The rest are either American, Spanish, Taiwanese or Mexican. Turkey also has some great fabrics. Whenever we find a fabric we love and washes well, we buy it.
What is your current inventory and what are your plans for expansion?
At the beginning of 2014 we’ll be making our chef coat line. We’ve already been making uniforms for some pretty giant companies I can’t mention. We’re making chef hats- like skulls caps- that are reversible with nice patterns. We’ve now got 45 different aprons in all different sizes from bartender aprons, craft aprons, petite aprons, children’s aprons and our baby bib aprons are about to launch. We’ve got knife bags and more speciality aprons, like barber aprons, in the works as well.
There’s been so much success, have you had any mentors along the way?
Oh, definitely. One of the biggest things that has helped me is that I’m very willing to take advice from people. If someone tells me I’m not doing something right I really try to step back and look at the situation and say ‘You’re right’. You really can’t be egotistical when you’re running your own company.
I have an uncle who is in business. If I have a problem we’ll go to breakfast and he’ll just walk me through things. I have about 4 people in my life like that- they’re my guides. They’re people I respect and who have also created great products.
You mentioned travelling. Have you learnt anything about the cultural and culinary diversity in those places and how you align your product accordingly?
I recently went to China, New York and San Francisco in the same month. I definitely realized China is a lot more formal. Our aprons have more of a Western aesthetic and wouldn’t necessarily be successful in some parts of China, but the cities that are more westernized there would love our products.
With regard to San Francisco and New York, I just realized there’s a need for our aprons. I’d see what restaurants were wearing and what could be improved for their staff. It’s not just an apron. It’s a uniform replacement. You don't have to wear an apron and buy your staff uniform. You just give them one of these and save money. Plus they look cooler and it’s an opportunity to help an American company grow! There are so many reasons people should buy our products!
Do you have any culinary travel tips for NYC or San Francisco?
Yes! In New York go to the Gramercy Tavern. It’s insane and incredible, it’s a beautiful Tavern with homey but fine dining.
In San Francisco Outerlands is amazing. It’s really small and looks like a cabin. Of course Bi-Rite Creamery as well. And then for the craziest dessert menu you’ll ever have, visit Atelier Crenn by Dominique Crenn, who also has our aprons. She’s the only woman in the United States to have two Michelin Stars. She’s badass and so f’ing awesome.
There’ll be a bunch of people reading this thinking ‘Argh! There’s an idea burning inside of me, how the hell did she really get hers off the ground?!?’ Do you have any top tips to help people sustain their business or start it?
Definitely don’t over-think it. If you have an idea, start and execute it. You can take six months to put together a business plan or pay someone to do it for you. But it’s just on paper, it’s not real life. So much comes from reality, you won't even know until you’re doing it. You just need an idea that makes sense and is something people want.
That being said, if someone has an idea they need to see if it works. If that means putting a little stand outside their house and selling a product to see how people respond, well then do that. If it means putting together a website you can sell two things on and tell your friends about, do that. Do something in the physical.
My first step was getting my DBA. I was legitimate and actually existed in the real world!
I’d say the next thing is to find out what people really need and want. Don’t offer something they don’t need, otherwise you’re just going to waste your money.
Have some backbone. Be willing to lose money and be willing to spend it.
Be willing to go on even when no-one believes in you. Don’t look for admiration from people when you first start. When I got going people were like ‘Haha- well good luck out there! Bon voyage!’ I didn't need their ‘You can do it!’ to go do it. You need to be self- sustaining. Honestly it’s really hard, and it doesn’t get easier. You don’t just achieve a goal and sit back and watch it roll past. You need to continually figure out the next step.
When you have a boom and achieve something, figure out what created it. Be very aware of your successful actions. For example, if your successful action was going to the farmers market every Sunday, don’t stop going to the farmers market just because you got five orders in. People start to change the way they do things when they get successful and then it can plummet. You can’t do that.
And lastly, customer service. When we have something come in from someone, we’re on it.
Finally, what would your dream project look like?
One of my dreams has been to do a collaboration with Kate Spade- one of my favorite brands. To be honest I’ve achieved so many dreams so quickly I need to re-dream! There’s restaurants we’ve got into recently, like David Chang’s Momofuku, and I can’t believe it. I’m living my dream. I want to be the Mac of the apron world. That may sound crazy, but I want to revolutionize the way kitchens wear!
For more information visit http://www.hedleyandbennett.com
Select images courtesy of Hedley & Bennet