"Dream First, Details Later" is Ellen Bennett's Mantra
The Hedley & Bennett founder shares her career story.
Ellen Bennett, the founder of apron company Hedley & Bennett, offers advice for aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs.
A former line cook at two of Los Angeles's most venerable restaurants, two-Michelin-starred Providence and the now-shuttered Bäco Mercat, Ellen Bennett was frustrated that the cooks’ uniform design didn't reflect the restaurants’ sensibility. That incompatibility led Ellen to design a modern, indispensable apron to reflect the artistry and meet the practical demands of chefs. Today, her company Hedley & Bennett outfits more than 6,000 restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, resorts as well as home cooks with aprons and kitchen gear.
On the heels of the launch of her first book, Dream First, Details Later, Ellen joined ICE for a virtual event to share her journey as well as tips for turning a seed of an idea into a reality. Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
What kind of kid were you?
I'm half-Mexican and half-English. In our household we only spoke Spanish, but my very English grandparents only spoke English with a British accent, drank tea, had Great Danes and it was just a wild life full of Shepherd's pie and a ton of mashed potatoes. It was great — I was able to grow up from a young age seeing very different worlds, very different foods and very different approaches to everything. I loved that because no matter how different those two worlds were, we still gathered around food.
What brought you to Mexico City after high school?
My parents divorced when I was about nine years old and it allowed me to be more independent. As I started exploring ways to help my mom at home, cooking really excited me. It was thrilling that I could take an ingredient and turn it into something wildly different. When I turned 18, I decided to move to Mexico City for one month and I actually stayed for four years.
I really like to share this part of the journey because a lot of times, as people are going to school and navigating life, they think it's a straight line. When they start to swirl around and take detours they think, 'Oh, I'm doing it wrong,' but actually you're doing it right. You're learning, you're exploring and you're being exposed to many different universes.
During those four years in Mexico, you held a lot of different jobs. What were they?
I announced the winning lottery numbers for Mexican television. I worked as a booth babe, meaning I was at trade shows selling products for different companies. I was an English tutor and simultaneously a translator for the Mexican Railroad Union. I was a culinary student and studied restaurant management while I was there.
My path was very windy, not a straight line. It included a lot of old-school tactics like: show up, commit to something, look people in the eye, say you're going to deliver and then deliver. And do it again and again, and build trust. That allowed me to find my entrepreneurial spirit.
At 22, you returned to the States and moved in with your mom and decided to enter the restaurant industry. How did you find a job?
I did it the same way I did it in Mexico: I got a list of the top 10 restaurants in LA, walked in through the back door, found the busboy and I said [in Spanish], "Where's your chef?" Then I walked up to the chef, handed him my resume and gave him a cold pitch. I was turned down by Pizzeria Mozza and all these other chefs along the way. I actually got eight noes and two yeses, and I did it all in one swoop.
What was your introduction to the LA restaurant scene like?
I had gone to restaurant management school in Mexico and cooked a bunch in my youth, but I'd never cooked for a long period of time in a professional environment. So I had to learn everything from scratch. I would clean and watch people while I was cleaning. That allowed me to absorb what I didn't know, while not being in the way. I would be sweeping around people and ask, "What'd you add to that?” and “How did you do this?," literally sticking my nose in everything and being very curious. I was willing to say I didn't know something and people were willing to explain it to me.
Obviously, you made a transition from working on the line to servicing the people on the line with this now multi-million dollar apron company. How did that begin?
At Providence I was shocked at how crappy our uniforms looked and how we felt. It was really bizarre because we were flying in Hokkaido scallops from Japan and sourcing beautiful ingredients from the farmers' market. Yet, we didn't do that for the uniforms we were wearing, and I wanted to fix that. I wanted to give people something that made them feel and look awesome, but filled them with a sense of pride and belonging.
How did you get your first order?
I had nothing but the idea. I blurted out, "I have an apron company. I'll make you aprons!" I really had nothing and I kicked it off. Chef Josef Centeno [aofBäco Mercat] said, "Hey, there's a girl and she’s going to make us aprons. Do you want to buy one?" I began with one order of 40 aprons for Chef Josef and it was the thing that propelled Hedley & Bennett to begin.
It’s really been quite a shift for myself as a person, having gone from a line cook to now a business owner and everything in between. I love sharing our story because I want to inspire everybody else to say, "You know what? I can do that, too. I don't have to do it the way that everybody else did. I can find my own way in the world and do something that's unique and different."
How did you find more customers?
I went to where my clients were. I went to farmer's markets, I went to food events. If Chef Cimarusti [Providence] was going to a food event, I would offer to work at it for free. I knew that there were going to be so many other chefs there. Sure enough, I met amazing chefs on that trip.
I talk about humble enthusiasm in my book, Dream First, Details Later, which is being willing to listen and being excited to share. That, to me, was a great recipe for success because every single chef that helped me would walk away feeling like they contributed to Hedley & Bennett. They would have a stake in the game because they helped make the straps better, or they gave me an opinion on how to make the pocket a little bit more effective, and I would take their advice and I would apply it.
What qualities are important when you're looking to hire new employees?
We look for curiosity and we look for no ego. When I mean no ego, I don't really want to hear about why you think you're so great — I want to hear about things you've accomplished or challenges you've overcome in past jobs. What's the biggest, craziest, most difficult thing that you were able to overcome in another job, and how did you do it and how did you use your problem-solving mindset to get over that hurdle? We also look for really smart people and I want them to be engaged in an interested way. We want people who are looking and asking, "How did you do that?" Never be in interview where you're not asking questions. Really get into the weeds of what you're going to do there, because then that employer knows you're not just thinking about this as a nine to five, but you're thinking about it as an opportunity to grow and to help them be better.
What's advice do aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs need to know?
Every successful person that I know has faced roadblocks and challenges that you never hear about. When you face a challenge, don’t let yourself feel like you’re a failure — and don't quit because of it. Instead, recognize it as a learning moment, and embrace it.
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Lean in and embrace that, too. This is not for the faint of heart, but it is possible. I started a company with $300 while I was a $10-an-hour line cook, now it's a multimillion-dollar business. I'm also a woman, I'm also Mexican. There's a lot of cards stacked up against me and I ignored them and instead, I went out and pushed forward.