Ellen Bennet's apron company started as a solution for professional chefs, but has grown into a lifestyle by embracing collaboration, building community and listening to its audience

Ellen Bennett is at the helm of a unique business. Starting as a purveyor of professional kitchen aprons, Hedley & Bennett has now expanded into a full-blown lifestyle brand, outfitting over 6,000 restaurants, operating a direct-to-consumer retail business and selling via wholesale partners including Williams‑Sonoma, Sur La Table and Whole Foods. Bennett has collaborated with brands across categories, with events or products in collaboration with Vans, Samsung, Pellegrino and Parachute Home. All Hedley & Bennett products are manufactured in its 16,000 square foot Los Angeles location, where Bennett has also created an immersive, playful community space.

PSFK spoke to Ellen about her strategies for growing a business, listening to customer feedback and remaining open to creative collaboration.

PSFK: Could you tell us a little bit about Hedley & Bennett and some of the broader trends that you're seeing impacting your work and retail today?

Ellen: We come from not your average industry. We have what started as an apron company six years ago, which was very much just business‑to‑business facing. We just wanted to outfit the best chefs and people out there in the culinary world.

What I tapped into accidentally and on purpose was as a professional cook at a 2‑Michelin star restaurant. I realized, “Wow, nobody is actually wearing garments that make them look and feel good.” I wanted to create dignity and pride in that world.

For me, I was solving a problem at that time just for chefs. That quickly morphed into so much more than just an apron company. People started seeing these aprons on chefs, and they wanted to wear it at home. They wanted to bring it to their everyday. It morphed into a lifestyle brand, accidentally.

In so many ways, it mimics what's been happening in the culinary world. It was so professional for so long: a chef is a chef is a chef. Now, a home cook, a foodie, they're all becoming their own versions of a chef. I think that that's a trend that's been happening for some time.

Food is universal. Everyone has it. It's bridging into worlds that are unexpected the way that music does.

PSFK: Could you speak a little bit more about what led you to decide to broaden your customer base from the restaurant industry to this mass consumer market?

When you start in one sector that's so niche, that's all you're doing. It's all you want to do. We outfitted Martha Stewart, David Chang, that sort of world. I realized that there were so many people clamoring for more from us. When you start a company in a pretty grassroots way, you’re able to listen more effectively.

Our chefs are consumers. Everything was so collaborative. It'd be like, “Hey, I love your aprons, but the straps are hurting my neck. I'd love a cross-back apron.” Then we would create that.

We just kept listening and kept our boots on the ground the entire time. We never had a gap between our consumers and what we were making for them. We were making it with them.

I truly believe that is the way of the future. It's not us in a boardroom and our audience over on the other side of the planet. It's building a bridge between both worlds and creating things that people actually want, actually need, and that you're listening and collaborating about it.

That's why social media is such a huge tool because you could use it as your own version of a focus group. You used to need to hire a company like McKinsey to be able to find out what the analytics of the world and what are they saying out there. Now, you can post a poll on Instagram and find out immediately what colors people are responding to. Do people like this cut? Is that a pattern that they want to use?

It's something that we have tapped into, and not only is it tremendously helpful, but it helps guide what our products are going to be. We're also not seasonal anymore.

If you look at the wholesale landscape and retail landscape, it's such a challenging world right now to a lot of retailers. They’re having to shift. The change is pretty dramatic. You see stores like Toys R Us and other companies completely closing down. These were the behemoths for so long.

We are embracing that change and doing things. We're not seasonal. We drop collaborations and new products monthly. The old way of wholesale and retail, I don't believe it works anymore. That is clearly now a broken system.

You've collaborated with a lot of brands recently, like Grateful Paper and Vans. You have a forthcoming collaboration with Parachute Home. Why is collaboration such an important part of your overall brand strategy?

It goes back to the way that the company was born. It was very much a chef and us working together to create something that didn't exist, and each party bringing the best of their knowledge and abilities to the table.

When you do that many, many times, you realize what a benefit it is to all parties because you're not having to invent it for them. You're listening effectively, and that helps you get a much better solution in the end.

Then you take that and you scale it, instead of just collaborating with a chef. Now, it's collaborating with other like‑minded brands that are doing something different from you, if you get together and make a baby, so to speak, together you come out with something amazing.

Vans, for example, we have many likenesses. We're both California‑based brands. The people that we outfit are dreamers. They're doers. They're hustlers. They're makers. They're out there. They're on their journey.

Vans makes shoes, and Hedley & Bennett makes amazing aprons for the culinary world. We bring our culinary perspective, and they bring their shoemaking amazing abilities. We both brought our communities together. What came in the middle was this magical conversion of creativity on a whole other level. You see it in the shoe. It's a shoe that's functional. It's beautiful.

It's also for people that are hustling and working. You can stand on it longer. It's water‑resistant. It's slip resistant.

In order to make your dreams come true, you got to get out of your comfort zone. You got to tap into that creative person within every one of us and use it to make that stuff happen.

I like your point about speaking to hustlers, whether they're culinary professionals or in another creative industry. Were there any challenges in speaking to the Van consumer who may not have had any professional culinary experience?

The beauty of it is that hustle is universal. Food is universal. Whether you are a carpenter, or a businessman, or a woman or man graduating from college or high school, everyone has dreams. Period. Most people [laughs] in the world have dreams. If you can give them something that makes them feel they can accomplish those dreams better, our job is done.

For Hedley & Bennett with the original apron, you put that apron on and it was a cloak of honor, almost. That's the same apron that David Chang, Martha Stewart, and all these incredible chefs were wearing, so you felt like a professional. It's a uniform. It makes you feel a certain way.

These shoes give you this energy that makes you feel like you can. That's the beauty. It's the community and the energy behind it. It's not just a shoe. It's the feeling.

Speaking of community, your factory in Los Angeles includes this community and events base and test kitchen. It even has a zip line and tree houses. Why was it so important to you to include this element of community?

As I mentioned before, the new way of business has to be collaborative. It's not about you over there and me over here. It's about growing together and the tide rises together. All chefs rise together. I truly believe that.

I’m watching chefs and different makers come on the journey with us and seeing them grow in their careers. We support them, and they support us. This just felt the next right thing to do to have a space where we could support them.

I just had lunch at Gramercy Tavern with Michael Anthony, who's the chef there. We were talking about the kitchen space and the giant new test kitchen that we built with Samsung. I said, the reason we did that was because when you launch a cookbook I can say, “Michael, come do a party here.” We'll help you. We'll take care of you. We'll invite our community and then you literally get to grow together and you're supporting them. He was one of our very first customers.

To be able to have this person who you respect so much, then later on the line you get to give back to them is the perfect ecosystem of support.

We've been able to launch so many different things in that space. When Shake Shack came to the West Coast, we hosted their first West Coast party. With a DJ in the tree house, we cooked over 1,000 Shake Shack burgers.

To be able to give that to a man like Danny Meyer who not only is an amazing human, but is also an incredible businessman. For Hedley & Bennett, as a company, to give that back to him was so special and magical.

Now, we do it all the time. We host brunches, lunches, dinners, parties, the Vans launch. We had half The Strokes performing there, the band. To have that opportunity in that space to offer to our community to make and create together is an amazing, beautiful, magical thing.

It's not “marketing jargon.” We're not “creating experiences.” We're just building real relationships as we have from day one. Now, we're doing it on a bigger scale with a cooler space.

You mentioned earlier about using social media and incorporating that into your R&D process. How has this community space helped you learn more about your customers and helped steer your R&D?

It's been such an incredible tool. When you give people context on how your product is made and everything that goes into it, they really have an understanding. Manufacturing sadly is not happening as aggressively as it used to in the United States.

When you have someone come in and they see 14 different sewers making an apron, they see the cutting service and all the different people and elements—basically, an assembly line that it takes to create this product—that adds value.

It's like getting a tour of the French Laundry. You're seeing the kitchen and you're like, “Wow, there's 27 men and women in here making every dish that we're getting to eat tonight.” It adds that value and education. All consumers want to know now.

Social media has made things so transparent. We're just taking it to the next level. Half the spaces are manufacturing, the other half is our community space. It's fully vertical, distribution, warehousing. Everything is there. It's very special for everybody.

Are there any other companies in any sector doing something similar to your business model that you find inspiring?

I appreciate business models that are different from ours. We have, as a company, taken notes from other areas. In many ways, we morphed out of just being a B2B apron company into a culinary lifestyle brand that's omnichannel.

We throw events. We have partnerships. We sell to retailers like Williams‑Sonoma and Sur La Table. Then we're also selling in a direct‑to‑consumer basis on our website. Also, doing custom and being able to collaborate with other brands.

We're hitting on lots of different notes and some of my inspirations are…I love Herman Miller. I think what they stand for is incredibly timeless. They do beautiful collaborations. They've been around forever. Their stuff lasts. It's not just beautiful: it's functional, and it's also not taking itself so seriously that they can't use a burst of orange.

I also appreciate everything that Infatuation is doing. I think acquiring Zagat, which is such a iconic company, and bringing it into their own fold and creating partnerships with companies like Amex, etc, it's such an amazing way to contribute to other businesses while helping yourself as well. It's a mutual benefit and a mutual growth. They have all the creativity.

American Express wants to be in front of other people, and they helped them build that bridge. In many ways, we're doing that as well. We have partnerships with companies, like Le Creuset. We're working with Samsung. The kitchen that we built in our space was in partnership with Samsung.

Similar to the collaborations in clothing, I think that now you don't have to just make it in a product. It can be an experience, and moments, and events in lots of different ways.

You've talked about the ways in which Hedley & Bennett has evolved from just an apron company into a lifestyle brand. Could you speak a bit about some forthcoming product offerings and the future of the company?

Absolutely. The Parachute Home collaboration that we're launching, it's a whole collection of potholders, kitchen towels, napkins, a smock that's Japanese-inspired, super beautiful for the home consumer, but with every single nod still tying back to a professional kitchen.

In the sense that it's durable, it's beautiful, it's awesome, it's not going to fall apart. You can use it aggressively. You can wash it without dry cleaning it. There's certain things that we wanted to be universally usable, not precious.

Our stuff is not precious. It's meant to be used and abused. That's why Hedley & Bennett is long‑lasting. That's a really awesome collaboration.

The Vans one just dropped. We're almost sold out, which is crazy as it just launched two days ago. We have tons of other completely different lines coming up next year going into the world of kitchen essentials.

Again, we’re continuing to build that bridge from the professional kitchen to the home user and educating people along the way. Removing that polarizing feeling that I think people have when they go into a kitchen essentials shop, where they're just like, “Oh my gosh, how do you know which whisk it is?”

It's like going to Sephora and not being a professional makeup artist. You don't know which curling iron, which mascara to get. We're helping people understand what's the right product. Why is this the best one for you at home? You don't need all the gimmicky things. You need a few essential products that are amazing. Hedley & Bennett is going to help you build that roadmap.

For the holidays, we have a Hedley & Bennett kitchen essentials curated group. It's going to be sold as a kit. It has every single thing, the basics. The equivalent of what would be like the foundation, the mascara, the brow pencil of makeup, but for a kitchen. The perfect whisk, the best peeler. It doesn't mean that the peeler is the most expensive peeler—it's the most effective peeler.

We're building out this kit so that if someone's maybe moving out, maybe going to college, it's a great gift for people to get as their starter kit to proper cooking at home with a nod to what professionals use.

Hedley & Bennett

Hedley & Bennett's CEO Ellen Bennett is pioneering a new retail model, prioritizing community to reach consumers everywhere from professional kitchens to Whole Foods. For more examples of how retailers are innovating in a transforming landscape, see PSFK's reports or newsletters.