Surrounded by a family of strong women who never said “no” and always made things happen, Ellen Bennett—of Hedley & Bennett—was born to be an entrepreneur. After cooking alongside top-level chefs in some of LA’s finest restaurants, she left the kitchen to revolutionize traditional chef wear with a brand that’s created excitement and empowered everyone from line cooks to home chefs.
We recently connected with Ellen to talk about her company and to discuss how she faced down recent challenges with a determined, community-first mindset.
Your heritage is Mexican-American. Tell us about your heritage, and the dynamics of your family upbringing.
I grew up part-time in LA and part-time in Mexico. I would spend three to four months in Mexico at a time. Big parts of my childhood included playing soccer in streets and going to the corner to pick up fresh tortillas. On the other hand, living in LA, my grandfather on my English side would be having tea everyday at 4:00 p.m. and eating Walkers shortbread cookies. There was a very dramatic difference in upbringing and culture and I loved every second of it: proper and put together mixed with colorful and adventurous.
Do you have any experiences that you can share that shaped your career?
Working in a two-Michelin-star restaurant was quite the journey in its own right, but then going from working in a kitchen to running a company was a whole other set of new challenges and adventures.
Did you have any experiences as a woman of color that you’d like to share that impacted your life and career?
I was always very proud of my Mexican-American heritage. I’ve always tried to turn something that makes me different into something that makes me stronger. All of my aunts and uncles had to fight 10x harder to accomplish anything, for example going to college. My aunt cleaned houses to help pay for her sister to go to college and then her sister did that to help the next sister, and so on. They just raised me in the mentality that no matter your circumstances, you are driving the car of life and it’s up to you to make the best of it. You have to focus on what you do have, not what you don’t have. I grew up with a positive mentality and no matter my circumstances I figured it out and made it work.
No matter your circumstances, you are driving the car of life and it’s up to you to make the best of it.
After culinary school, you were working at 2 restaurants simultaneously in L.A. One of those places was two-Michelin-starred Providence. You then went from cooking with top-level chefs to giving them a fresh, revolutionary look. The kitchen world usually looked like black or checkered pants, a white coat, and a flimsy white apron.
What made you leave the kitchen? Did you ever imagine your company would reach such fandom within the culinary world and become a multi-million dollar operation?
When I started Hedley & Bennett, my intent was to make the best apron in the world for the world of chefs. It quickly became something for more than just chefs and professionals. The excitement is that the company has grown astronomically outside of the restaurant business.
We’ve collaborated with brands like Rifle Paper Co, Vans, Madewell and more. The consumer we have now is not just the professional but the home consumer. It’s exciting to be able to teach people how to be a better cook at home when they feel like they just can’t do it.
Hedley & Bennnett is based on being proper and badass: if you put on an apron, you’re going into battle in the kitchen. At home if you’re not a confident cook, you can start with an apron or good tools—that is part of the journey of becoming more comfortable in the kitchen.
What’s the biggest challenge you faced as you started your business?
I never could have expected a pandemic. It’s this constant shift and all kinds of moments where every day is a different opportunity to learn. But, as an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to be like Gumby—you have to be flexible and flex in all of the different ways you never thought you could before.
That’s been a fantastic and terrifying part of running my own company. You have to keep pushing yourself and have no ego attached. I don’t know everything and when there’s something I don’t know I’m going to go hire someone, find a coach or learn more about it and figure it out. Never stop learning period.
If you want to do something make sure you find an angle that is really unique to you.
What advice would you give to others who want to embark on starting their own business?
If you want to do something make sure you find an angle that is really unique to you. You need to think about it from the lens of you being the most uniquely qualified person to bring an idea to life like no one else can. I’ve seen people try to execute ideas or chase others’ visions without a unique lens or approach and it’s very hard. It’s hard enough to start a business in general and is not for the faint of heart. You must walk into it knowing that you are willing to wake up everyday, take hockey sticks to the face, and then do it again the next day. That passion and purpose will keep you pushing.
With the rise of voices calling out for progressive social change, like the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter, how can businesses thoughtfully manage consumer perspectives?
It has always been important to me that we share with our audience what we were doing and how we were being proactive. From day one when the pandemic hit, we were very open with our audience about how we were helping and contributing. We were there to communicate and help as many people as we could. We have donated over 275,000 masks with our buy one, get one model.
When the Black Lives Matter movement happened, we donated as much as we could and are continuing to seek communities to support across the country.
All of these things are our way of showing up for our community the best we can.
Have you encountered any challenges in the industry because of your gender? If so, can you speak to some of those and how you addressed them?
My approach when I started Hedley & Bennett was: “What do you think about this idea? Can I visit you and talk about this?”
So many people who supported me with Hedley & Bennett didn’t treat me differently, they just thought, “Oh, Ellen has this great idea.” Working in the restaurant business, the women who were there (few and far between) really ran the show, brought organization and structure, and gave me the strength to be better and work harder.
When you combine that with my mom and my aunts, I was always just surrounded by a bunch of strong women who made things happen.
What has been the biggest accomplishment of your career thus far, and what do you want to achieve next?
Having turned our company in 24 hours into a face mask endeavor and doing all of this during a global pandemic is something that makes me very proud of and for our team. Being able to come out on the other end and donate over 275,000 masks to frontline workers, farmers, restaurant workers and more took a lot of willpower and resilience. I’m really proud of how we were able to contribute to our community in this way.
I’m extremely proud that we’ve been able to create a brand that inspires people to not only get into the kitchen, but look and feel awesome in and out of the kitchen.
We now have so many people who are wearing our aprons at home and I’m excited to be able to teach them and guide them down this path of feeling empowered in the kitchen in a really genuine way.
Are there any peers, whether in the foodservice world or garment world that you particularly admire for having created positive change for women working in those respective industries?
Yes, definitely. Chef Michael Cimarusti (Providence) who I worked for is a really amazing and powerful man who has helped a lot of different people climb through the ranks over the years.
John & Vinny have really shown up for our community and given a lot of people a platform and careers. Dana Cowin, former Editor-in-Chief of Food and Wine, is a friend of mine and Lena O’Connor, are both super inspiring women to me.
Is there one thing that you feel needs to change in your industry? How do you think that will happen?
The entire restaurant world has been flipped on its head over the last four months and changes are happening. There’s a pretty serious reckoning happening, businesses that have been around for a long time are no longer there and smaller businesses are growing. I think things will shake out where they need to shake out. For so long, restaurants have operated on the slimmest of margins with very little safety nets and there’s been very little support from the government. So if there’s gonna be a restaurant industry in the future, we have to rebuild it from the ground up.
I’m really excited because changes that needed to be made are happening and I believe we will come out stronger because of it.
What are you most excited about when it comes to the future of the foodservice industry specifically?
I’m really excited because changes that needed to be made are happening and I believe we will come out stronger because of it. Changes that were avoided are now staring our industry in the face. I’m excited for the shift in economics and having restaurants be more sustainable. I’m also excited for a conscious ecosystem in the restaurant world, and educating the consumer more.
Want to meet more inspiring and entrepreneurial women? Check out some of the ladies we’ve already chatted with in our Industry Spotlight.