Before creating Hedley & Bennett in 2012, founder Ellen Bennett recognized a recurring pattern in kitchen workwear: it was mostly drab and uninspiring. So, she set out on a mission to change that. The result? Unique, handcrafted aprons and chef gear using top grade American canvas, raw Japanese selvage denim and European linens. We caught up with Ellen to learn more about how she created her dream job.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING 5-7 YEARS AGO BEFORE HEDLEY & BENNETT?
EB: 5 years ago, I was working as a line cook at a restaurant here in Los Angeles called Providence. 7 years ago, I was living in Mexico City going to school. So, I guess I was trying out a bunch of different things to see where I fit properly. I’m half Mexican and I’ve always loved my Mexican roots and family, so I moved to Mexico City on my own when I was 18. I lived there for 4 years and when I was about to turn 23, I decided it was time to come back to the States. What I really love about that chapter of my life was that it very much shaped me into the person I am today — because the hustle was fucking real. I worked all kinds of jobs like simultaneous translating, English lessons, and commercials; all this shit helped cultivate the skills I used for the real world.
IS HEDLEY & BENNETT YOUR DREAM JOB?
EB: Yes, fuck yeah. Absolutely. I created my own ecosystem that I wanted and I really feel strongly about businesses becoming a platform for good. It’s important you really find something you love and something you’re okay with thinking about all the time. And for me, Hedley & Bennett is a juxtapose of all the things I love – it’s cooking, it’s design, it’s helping people, it’s traveling, it’s creating jobs, it’s being innovative. It’s all these things that I love to do, jammed into one giant thing and I turned it into my baby. And yes, it’s hard as freaking hell because I went from a line cook to a CEO in 4 years. But it’s amazing and it’s my adventure.
WHEN DID YOU HAVE YOUR “AH HA” MOMENT OF HEDLEY & BENNETT?
EB: I had my “ah ha” moment in life when I was like 9 years old. My parents had a pretty nasty divorce and I just saw my mom’s world fall apart right in front of my eyes. And I was like, “You know what? I will fucking succeed in this life. I am going to make it happen, and I will not fail.” It was a humongous decision that I made at a really young age and it truly has given me the fire inside to move and make stuff happen. I’m not thinking, “poor me” but more like “Fuck yes, I’m going to crush it.” I wanted to succeed, and I knew I could do it. It’s important for people to understand sometimes you’re not born with an idea. You have to really experience life to figure out where you’re going. I didn’t know I was going to be an apron lady, and I did a lot of things to get to this point in my life. When that point arrived I said, “There you are. Hi.” But it took other experiences for me to see that moment and take it.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS BUSINESS CONCEPT AND DID YOU HAVE EXPERIENCE IN IT PRIOR?
EB: I did not have experience in making aprons, but I had experience in selling, in running around, in finding clients, and in working my ass off in Mexico. So being in the United States, comparatively speaking, is so relatively easy. And by no means has Hedley & Bennett been easy, but with that in the back of my mind, being here I was just like, “Oh my god, I can totally do this!” So I took a lot of life experiences and converted them into knowing how to run a business.
HOW DID YOU FUND YOUR STARTUP?
EB: It’s totally self-funded; I started it with $300 out of my house. I got my first order for 40 aprons from one of the chefs that I worked for. He said, “Hey I’m going to have somebody make aprons. Do you want to get in on this order?” And I said, “No, I can do it, faster and better.” and I convinced him to drop that other person. I took that money and invested it back into the company and did it over and over and over again. I kept three other jobs to sustain myself personally and didn’t take any money out of the company. In a way I was doing it the old school way; I just didn’t spend more than I made. Like pretty fucking elementary stuff! A lot of times you just need to get your ass into gear and make sure that people actually want your product. You can figure that out without a million dollars.
NAME 3 OF THE SCARIEST MOMENTS YOU HAD WHEN DOING THIS.
EB: The first super scary moment involved that first 40-unit order. The chef was my first and only client, but also my boss. He called me into his office and he was like, “Hey Ellen, these aprons suck. The straps are falling apart.” And I thought Oh fuck, this is my first order! What the hell am I going to do? It was like my whole world was caving in around me. I took the aprons back in batches so they could still use the other half in the kitchen, and I came up with the apron straps that we use to this day. There was a risk of me losing my job and then losing my first client. It was like I had a gun to my head, so I came up with the new straps on the fly. Scary moment number two was actually prior to that when I convinced that chef to give me his order. I didn’t even have a pattern or sewers. I had nobody. And I had a three-week turnaround time. I needed to deliver and I’m a lady of my word, so I wasn’t about to fuck it up for him. And just other things down the line as the company has grown – when I signed the lease on the 15,000 square foot apron factory, hiring my first employee, or when my sewer quit his job to come work for me when I was still a line cook at the restaurant. These are just tiny moments of scariness and 80 of those would happen every single day.
WHAT IS YOUR PIECE OF ADVICE TO ANYONE WHO WANTS TO STOP WHAT THEY’RE DOING AND CREATE THEIR DREAM JOB?
EB: I think that you really just have to start. I‘m not going to be the person that says quit your day job and go do what you want full time. But I am going to say that it’s going to be extraordinarily hard. It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. So unless you truly are passionate about it and want to put in the time and effort and be utterly responsible for every high and low, don’t quit your day job. Don’t go start that business unless you are ready to commit yourself to it like it’s a child. That’s the guts and dedication it takes to make something take off.