“I’ve always, even when I was a little kid, been a little ‘different.’ I’m definitely unusual,” says Ellen Bennett. The 28-year-old founder and creator of the apron line Hedley & Bennett stresses the word unusual, drawing it out as an onomatopoeia. “I’m just kind of like a really big little kid,” says the bubbly brunette, whose social media photos consist mostly of images of herself jumping and laughing in colorful outfits.
Earlier this month, there was more of that when Hedley & Bennett celebrated its fourth birthday with a massive party at the company’s Vernon warehouse. A rainbow array of oversized balloons floated to the ceiling of the white-walled space. More than 1,000 guests spilled out into the adjacent alley, where food and beverage purveyors offered Instagram-worthy bites and sips. Human-sized pineapple– and ice cream–shaped floats lined the brightly painted walls of the neighboring building. Children squealed as they slid down a giant inflatable slide and, at some point in the evening, Bennett posed with a whimsical four-tiered birthday cake and mimicked blowing out a giant sparkling candle.
The scene is so epic, it makes you contemplate what Bennett could possibly come up with for next year’s birthday. It also indicates that the niche, high-end apron business is doing quite well. Especially considering this kind of affair is not uncommon to Hedley & Bennett: one of the reasons for moving the headquarters in to such a large warehouse was for the purpose of throwing lots of parties.
“I wanted to be able to have this space where I could bring all of our people together and say, ‘Come here! Hang out with us,’” Bennett says.
If one wonders who “our people” refers to: “That is the apron squad,” Bennett explains. “That is the community. The apron squad unites people from all different worlds. They’re united by this one thing.” That one thing is her apron collection, which she talks about with a mother's love.
“I’m a believer and I’m a doer. So if I read a book that I think makes sense, you’ll find me the next day applying information from that book. Or if I see a quote on the wall, I’ll fucking take that quote to heart and a week later I’ll talk about it to my staff.” The factory has inspirational quotes painted on the inside walls, such as, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” and “If you can dream it, you can do it."
When asked if she needed funding or investors to start this business, her answer is no.
“I started it in my house four years ago. I was cooking. I was working at Bäco [Mercat] and at Providence, and while I was doing that I was hustling aprons on the side. So I never got investors. It is totally a bootstraps operation. And so it started in my living room and then we moved into a tiny little 400-square-foot office next to the Ace Hotel, which, it was not the Ace Hotel back then. Every year we had to get a bigger space because we were just growing and growing.”
Now Hedley & Bennett has settled in Vernon; sections of the factory are rented out to other vendors. But despite the company’s already rapid growth, Bennett only wants it to get bigger.
“We want to get everywhere. We want to have more people on the apron squad. If you can grow that all over the world, I mean how fucking awesome is that?”
Four years ago, most restaurants weren’t spending money on high-end aprons. Chefs Works, a popular uniform source for restaurants, sells white cook's aprons for less than $7. According to the Hedley & Bennett website, aprons run anywhere from $58 to $140 each. How was Bennett able to attract an audience used to seeing her product as a commodity?
“It was like pioneering, big-time. The concept of spending more money on this was sort of a foreign concept, and then you know more and more people started seeing, ‘Oh wow, that makes a lot of sense. That looks way better and way cooler. Our teams look better. It’s more on brand.’”
Though it seems far-fetched to think people would want to spend exponentially more on an apron than they were previously, Bennett was smart to not underestimate the power of vanity. After all, that’s why she started the company in the first place.
“I wanted something that made people including myself feel better about themselves, no matter who you were in the kitchen or where you are on your path to be a successful chef. I wanted to be able to provide that for the culinary world. Whereas you have that in the athletic world and you have that in other fields. But in the culinary world it was always sort of overlooked so much. Cooking is a sport, you want to be able to look and feel the best that you can, and have a little bit more self-confidence. When you’re in the kitchen working 10-, 12-hour shifts, and you’re getting your ass handed to you and you look shitty and you feel shitty and on top of that you have the worst uniform ever, it just sort of made sense to me. I was in those shoes. I was a line cook making $10 an hour. So it was for me and for everyone else around me.”
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Four years later, Hedley & Bennett has grown into a digitally savvy, recognizable chef- and lifestyle-focused brand. Bennett points out that the company is not just about selling aprons but about collaborating with companies to create something unique.
“We’re not just like, ‘Here’s an apron.’ We’re like, ‘What’s your brand? What does it look like and let’s make a baby together.’ It’s just this very special ecosystem of you have this idea and it becomes a product and then your team is wearing the product and then your team loves it and then people are like, ‘Oh my God, you’re part of the apron squad.’ It really is this whole world,” Bennett says.
“As the company grew, people always relate to the fact that we’re so real," explains Bennett, who according to her Instagram feed appears to spend a lot of time with celebrity chefs, actors and bloggers. "We’re like, right there. We’re not pretentious. We’re not trying to be something that we’re not. We’re so much ourselves, almost like to a fault. But, like, this is us. Love us this way and we’ll love you. We are what we are. If you relate that back to our aprons, anybody can be what they want to be, right? And if you have enough confidence to do that, you can do it. You can almost view this apron as a cape, almost like a little protection cape. You put it on. You have the dignity. You have the power to fucking make shit happen.”
It certainly seems like a lot to promise from an apron. But Bennett's strategy appears to be working. "My mom always raised me saying the only way you can really battle your enemies is by killing it at life and then you’ll shut everybody up. So that’s always sort of been our motto. Crush it. Flourish and prosper."