It’s not often that you get to hang with one of your heroes, but we gotta say, getting to know the kitchen’s coolest aproned crusader, Ellen Bennett, was one of the brightest spots of our 2020 interview series. We’ve long stan-ed Ellen’s innovative kitchenwear company, Hedley & Bennett, but after getting to know her on Zoom and then in person, we have shifted some of that love to the lady herself. Ellen is so zesty and clearly has tons of business savvy and true hustle. Her candor about starting a company and working to make it palatable for both restaurant chefs and home cooks is canny, cool, and way admirable.
Melissa: How have you shifted as a business and as an individual to accommodate this new normal? What are you doing differently that you did not do before?
Ellen: I am cooking way more. This is something I have always been doing but I am cooking way more than ever these days. I love to go to the Farmer’s Market and then cook for 6 hours making an obnoxious amount of food. Cooking has always been my secret weapon. This truly has been helping me keep my head on straight. Other than that, we have a pet pig and some chickens, so I spend most of the time in my backyard with them. It is a small, crazy community back there and they keep me entertained. I also joined a 7:00 am park workout that I have been doing, which is essentially an outdoor cross-fit class. It is so aggressive but has been amazing for me! These are just a few of the odd things we are doing to keep us sane during these times.
Melissa: That is amazing, I love that! Tell us about your journey from becoming a chef to creating a versatile kitchen essential brand? Hedley & Bennett does a great job accommodating the necessary needs of a functioning kitchen along with those who also love cooking at home.
Ellen: Our mission is bridging the gap between the ‘home cook’ and the ‘professional chef.’ Given these circumstances, we have had to pivot aggressively to outfit ‘the home cook.’ The company started in a professional kitchen and it was very much geared towards chef–that was always our audience. Every design that we made was function first for a professional kitchen and then design came second. I love the idea of timeless tools, I think the kitchen has had a lot of that but not much evolution. However, speaking for myself, it has been quite the evolution from being a chef to running a B2B brand that then morphed into a D2C brand and is still servicing the restaurants at the same time! We are essentially running two parallel companies within the same business that has polar opposite audiences but similar needs in some ways. It has been a balancing act that I have bootstrapped for 7 and a half years. However, recently, we have partnered up with a strategic partner, so I do not have to do it on my own anymore. Having more growth and structure has been really exciting!
Melissa: That is incredible! Always helpful to have an extra pair of hands and eyes to assist you! Did you ever think you would be designing and manufacturing a product that has a fashion aspect in it? Was fashion always a part of it or did it come out of the need to service a different group?
Ellen: Great question! It started with function and I always played it safe–using colors like blue, grey, and black. But I wanted to take this garment that we all wear in a professional kitchen and make it elevated. It organically started to flow out, and we wanted to be different than ‘a uniform company.’ There was that design aspect that we really honed in on, in addition to providing a service, and these together, pushed it to the next level. We decided to do collaborations which really pushed us out of the world of just food. We teamed up with Madewell to do a whole collection of jumpsuits, bandanas and shirts. This fostered our creativity, and it never stopped us to continue being innovative–we keep pushing these boundaries. You can take it in so many directions because food is so universal, and everyone is cooking now!
Fun fact: Dawn soap is a miracle worker for stains, it’s a chef’s best friend and makes stains come off like a boss!
Melissa: I love hearing about how it all progressed. How do you decide to come out with new colors or new styles? Are you following a traditional fashion calendar? How do you decide what to develop next and how often is this done?
Ellen: For a long time, it was pretty whimsical–but now that the company has evolved, and we have a larger team and factory, we have to be a little more responsible about our design choices. We have a core line and a selection of limited drops. The core is the bread and butter of our line and is there all the time, and then like we will have a limited collection for the holidays which have fun prints. We have some tie-dye aprons out right now which ties in the fashion piece. We have a base and then color optionality depending on the season, so yes, there is an inspiration from fashion for sure!
Melissa: What was the reason for starting the line? Did you think that the notion of “feeling good in your apron” was lacking? Or was it purely a functional issue?
Ellen: There was a good foundational layer of Hedley & Bennett that was built on inspiring people to just try and roll into that kitchen. Whether you were a line cook or professional chef– you mattered, and we wanted people to feel inspired. Putting on the uniform should inspire people to ‘make something happen.’ In a weird way that, has not fully happened in a home kitchen— as not everyone thinks of an apron as an essential tool. However, in a professional kitchen, you have a cutting board, a knife, and an apron and then you get to work. We wanted to build the bridge and connect the dots of cooking—when you look and feel the part, you can do the part better. People say wearing the apron boosts their confidence in the kitchen, and we love hearing that! We are not just a garment, we are making something that is functional that you can wear all the time and that can inspire you to do better.
Our mission is bridging the gap between the ‘home cook’ and the ‘professional chef.’
Melissa: I love that! When you are at home, how do you display your aprons? Do you hang them or fold them? What is the proper way to care for these aprons?
Ellen: I have some tricks that I think everyone can use at home! If you have your apron hanging on a wall – the chances of you wearing it is significantly higher. I highly recommend not putting it in a drawer… ideally, have it by your stove. I use a push pin to hang up my apron or you could use a beautiful brass hook to hang it. I have a wall in my kitchen where I hang all my pots and pans along with all of my aprons—I get inspired by that area. So, I have a wall of aprons and also one hanging right beside my stove for easy access.
Melissa: So smart and handy! What is your go-to apron? Do you have one that you always wear?
Ellen: I really love our Cedar apron right now, it’s Japanese denim with a stunning light brown strap. I also love our smocks, they are inspired by Japanese cuts. They go over your shoulder, and they are super lightweight but durable.
Melissa: How do you take care of them? Do you wash them every time you wear them?
Ellen: Once you get in the rhythm and get accustomed to wearing an apron while you cook, you will find that the apron can take 2-4 times of use before being washed. I grab our towels and dinner napkins and throw them in the wash. Fun fact: Dawn soap is a miracle worker for stains, it’s a chef’s best friend and makes stains come off like a boss! All of the Hedley & Bennett aprons are made with indestructible fabrics. Even if you get a bunch of stuff on it, it will all come out!
Melissa: Pro tips! With fall here, what is next? What are you doing for Thanksgiving?
Ellen: I actually had Thanksgiving on Halloween—we cheated! We had our in-laws in town and so we did it on Saturday, but we will probably do another Thanksgiving dinner! We love the basics— cranberry sauce from scratch, but I am also really proud of the 10-pound turkey I made! I dry brimmed it for 13 hours the night before, and the turkey absorbed all of it. It could not have been more perfectly salted.
Melissa: Wow that sounds incredible! I am making note of this for when I cook our Thanksgiving dinner! Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview, Ellen! I loved hearing more about Hedley & Bennett.