How Hedley & Bennett’s founder made career breakthroughs her normal

Mae Rice
7min read
Success stories
May 8, 2023
Featured image

Today, Ellen Bennett is founder and chief brand officer of culinary retailer Hedley & Bennett—and celebrity chef Alton Brown calls their aprons “simply the best I’ve ever encountered.”

Back in 2012, Bennett was a line cook at Los Angeles’s Michelin-starred Providence, with a disintegrating apron.

There was no one breakthrough moment that got Bennett from there to where she is today. There was a constant flow of them.

There was the moment Bäco Mercat’s chef and Bennett’s boss, Joseph Centeno, placed the very first Hedley & Bennett order. There was the moment the brand diversified and launched a chef’s knife, after specializing in aprons for more than 7 years—and the moment the knife waitlist hit 6K pre-orders.

Here’s how Bennett keeps the career breakthroughs (plural) coming.

She solved her own problems

Bennett didn’t decide to make aprons out of the blue.

She started Hedley & Bennett to solve her own problem: She wore cheaply made aprons every day at work, and they chafed, fell apart, and generally drove her up the wall.

She knew she wasn’t alone in wishing the culinary world had Nike-level performance apparel—and she decided to make it.

“I would not have even realized that the culinary world needed a Nike if I hadn’t been a cook working 12-hour shifts, with the intensity and adrenaline that comes with working at a two-Michelin-star restaurant,” she says.

I would not have even realized that the culinary world needed a Nike if I hadn’t been a cook working 12-hour shifts, with the intensity and adrenaline that comes with working at a two-Michelin-star restaurant.
Ellen Bennett
Founder, Hedley & Bennett

That insider perspective helped Hedley & Bennett find product-market fit.

“I think it’s a big differentiator for us,” she says. “I was solving a problem for myself and my fellow cooks.”

She talked business in the middle of the road

In the past decade, Hedley & Bennett has partnered with big names like Madewell (on a capsule collection for makers), the Grateful Dead (on a psychedelic bear-print apron with a “Dedley & Bennett” logo), and Alton Brown himself on their best-selling SKU ever: a patterned neutral apron.

There was one splashy, early collaboration that started it all: Vans and Hedley & Bennett chef shoes, with rainbow soles inspired by a wall outside the Hedley & Bennett factory.

It was “one of the first indicators that our company and our brand had legs to expand out of aprons,” Bennett says—and it paved the way for all collabs to come. One early edition sold out in 48 hours.

So how did Bennett make it happen?

First, she wanted to work with Vans. She had gotten survey feedback from customers that they’d love to see a Hedley & Bennett shoe, and they’d specifically mentioned Vans, too.

Then she went to ComplexCon, a streetwear festival, and happened to run into the head of sales for Vans in the street.

“She was like, ‘Are you Hedley & Bennett?’” Bennett recalls. “We met there and really hit it off standing in the middle of the road.”

You don’t always have to book a formal meeting. Spontaneous run-ins work, too.

She asked her customers for advice

In 2022, Hedley & Bennett went from an apron company to a culinary brand that also sells chef’s knives—a major expansion driven by customer requests.

“They were clamoring for more product,” Bennett says.

Already, the knife launch has been a huge success. Not only did Hedley & Bennett rack up a 4.2K-person wait list for the knife—a whopping 60% of their CRM ended up buying it.

“The fact that our audience respects and trusts us enough to continue to buy the things that we put out is the biggest compliments,” Bennett says.

The fact that our audience respects and trusts us enough to continue to buy the things that we put out is the biggest compliments.
Ellen Bennett
Founder, Hedley & Bennett

She extended hospitality to hospitality pros

Hedley & Bennett has hosted dozens of in-person meals since inception. “We like merging paths and minds and ideas for magic to happen in real life,” Bennett explains.

Many of the meals were Bennett Brunches, where Bennett gathered 10-15 strangers to cook together at her house.

A larger-scale example: One holiday season, they gathered 100+ restaurant pros for a potluck. They all brought food from their restaurant, or their favorite restaurant around the city.

They always are at an event when they’re working, but they’re rarely at an event where they’re not.
Ellen Bennett
Founder, Hedley & Bennett

It was an innovative set-up, in a way that might not be obvious to an outsider.

“It gave everybody an opportunity to talk amongst themselves without working,” Bennett explains. “They always are at an event when they’re working, but they’re rarely at an event where they’re not.”

She dreamed big—even when her company was already big

Bennett doesn’t overplan.

“It’s very much in my DNA to just decide to do things and figure out the details after I decide,” she says.

It’s how she got Hedley & Bennett off the ground, as she recounts in her memoir-slash-business-guide, Dream First, Details Later: She took her first order, sure she’d fill it somehow—and she was right!

It’s still a leadership strength today, in the C-suite of a multi-million-dollar company.

“It’s called vision,” she says.

Be willing to listen to your gut enough to get out of your own way to start doing something.
Ellen Bennett
Founder, Hedley & Bennett

She can spot possibilities and opportunities worth the risk. For example: During the early days of COVID, she pivoted Hedley & Bennett’s apron factory into a face mask factory.

“We had nothing baked,” Bennett says. “There was no concept of what a face mask looked like.”

She and her team ended up making 1M face masks, collaborating with a surgeon on the design—and donated hundreds of thousands of the masks to frontline workers.

At the same time, they sold a backlog of aprons that they had already manufactured pre-pandemic.

It was a values-driven decision—“we knew we wanted to show up for our community,” Bennett says—that ended up supporting the existing team, too.

“I think that’s a crucial part of the journey of any business owner,” Bennett says. “Be willing to listen to your gut enough to get out of your own way to start doing something.”

She embraced B2B and B2C synergy

Hedley & Bennett began as a B2B business serving restaurant kitchens. Today, they also serve home cooks with their online store.

Next, Bennett wants to cultivate connections between the B2B and DTC sides of the business, which could easily get treated as “separate, siloed pieces,” she says.

She and her team realize B2B customers often introduce DTC customers to the brand. “You might see our apron in a restaurant you love and on a chef you love, and then you go to our website,” Bennett explains.

The DTC success of their products is hard to extricate from their B2B success, really. A history of outfitting more than 6K restaurant kitchens gives Hedley & Bennett credibility—rightly so.

Their early audience gave them a lot of valuable feedback on quality, longevity, and how the pros cook.

“You’re listening to a lot of people and your ideas of what you think is good changes constantly, because people are giving you feedback and you’re improving,” Bennett says.

Now their great product, tight customer feedback loops, cool collaborations, and community get-togethers have snowballed into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

“All of that aggregates into genuine trust and love,” Bennett says.

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Mae Rice
Mae Rice
Mae Rice is a senior content marketing manager at Klaviyo, leading case studies and writing customer-focused blog posts. A longtime journalist and content marketer, she has covered marketing, technology and the ways they intersect since 2019, and her freelance work has appeared in Insider, Vox, Buzzfeed Reader and beyond. She graduated from the University of Chicago and lives in Chicago.