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Turning An Apron Into An Empire

Amy Nelson is a contributor for Women@Forbes and shared the following article on Sept. 30, 2018. 

A collaboration with Vans, partnerships with Samsung and LeCreuset for a brand new test kitchen, coverage in Fast Company and more. Ellen Bennett, Founder & CEO of Hedley & Bennett, has built a lifestyle brand around one of the most sturdy and fashionable kitchen aprons to hit the market. Over the past six years, Hedley & Bennett’s mission (or North Star, as she calls it) is simple: provide the best aprons for every chef, grill master, artist, or maker in the world. While a line cook in LA (at a 2-Michelin-starred restaurant, no less) Bennett saw how quickly the restaurant staff wore through their aprons. With the bustling LA kitchen as a perfect R&D environment and $300 in her pocket, Bennett set out to design an apron that would be durable and front-of-house presentable. Six years later, this “small little apron company” has become an omni-channel lifestyle brand whose bigger mission is to build community.

The last year has been one of growth for Bennett, both professionally and personally. Not only is she scaling her company with new collaborations and a first-of-its-kind test kitchen in their LA factory, but she’s getting married and is renovating some rental houses. “I never let our company or myself stay complacent. I’m always learning how to be a better leader and and partner,” Bennett said. Armed with her ethos that “the best business ideas are ones that are creating a solution to a problem with a highly innovative approach,” Bennett shared three key areas that she focuses on as her company grows.

Take feedback and make changes

At a pivotal moment in her business growth, Bennett decided it was time to seek outside counsel. “It was a critical time in the company, and I realized that I needed more guidance and help, so I hired a business coach. It’s a vulnerable thing to open yourself up to constructive feedback,” Bennett said. Bennett and her coach started tackling one lesson: she needed to hear more about what her staff valued and wanted in their work, and she needed to provide other avenues to communicate how the company is changing to meet those needs. Explaining this, Bennett (a self-proclaimed workhorse) said she quickly realized that not all of her staff could or wanted to run at her fast pace. To address the difference in work styles, Bennett spent more time connecting personally with people on her team to understand their best working styles, and then worked to put them in the right roles. She also started a bi-weekly email to her staff to share upcoming events and initiatives to keep everyone on the same page with company initiatives. “The awareness that my team perceived my actions and leadership differently than I wanted to convey was a moment for me to realize that I needed to change because I cannot, and will not, have my team feeling like part of a machine. That isn’t personal or how I want to run my business,” Bennett said.

Foster community

Hedley & Bennett’s team is truly inclusive and collaborative, and it’s that value that they extend to their customers - or “Apron Squad,” as they call it. The Hedley & Bennett LA apron factory is packed with teams of creative people who are always iterating for improvement and having fun in the process (Watch this video to see more of the team in action). Bennett believes the future of work clearly looks like an inclusive gathering of people who live a company’s mission and who stand strong in their beliefs.That spirit of inclusion and collaboration drove the company beyond aprons to create a place where Hedley & Bennett product will be tested to its max: a state-of-the-art test kitchen inside the apron factory. This Samsung-sponsored space (one of the larger brand collaboration for Hedley & Bennett) will be home for cooking demos, community gatherings, meet-and-greets with chefs and cookbook authors, and more. “Where do the best conversation and connections always happen? In the kitchen! To finally have a kitchen of our own, that we can welcome people into with open arms, is truly a dream come true,” said Bennett.

Never stop tinkering

When asked, Bennett quickly rattles off her business rules: “Always keep promises, don’t go into debt, and don’t spend more that you make.” She pauses, and laughs, “I’m old-fashioned, I guess.“ It’s hard to agree with her on that, frankly, given that she managed to create the first must-have apron, and then turned that product into an omni-channel lifestyle brand. This all manifests as proof of her wanting to constantly innovate and create. “Each time I hit a goal, I looked to the next problem that needed a solution. I keep tweaking to make things better,” Bennett said. First, Hedley & Bennett mastered the apron, and then she turned her eye towards creating a similarly perfect chef’s coat. From there Hadley & Bennett put their spin on a knife bag and then came a collaboration with Vans for footwear. “I’m recharged by always improving, always creating new things,” Bennett said. “Something I tell entrepreneurs all the time is ‘create a product that solves a problem,’ and ‘never stop innovating.’ ”

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[IMAGE] Ellen Bennett in Hedley & Bennett's new LA Test Kitchen [Credit: Hedley & Bennett]