Best Practices: How An Apron Impresario Changed the Look of Restaurant Kitchens
Ellen Marie Bennett on her new business book Dream First Details Later, how her company made more than a million masks during the pandemic, and why perfection and fear of failure are the enemy of progress.
Editor's note: We could all use a little inspiration and light during these strange days. Enter Best Practices, an F&W Pro interview series where we share how leaders and creatives are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.
It may be hard to imagine now when you see Top Chef Season 17 winner Melissa King looking so sharp in a Gap ad campaign or 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef Kwame Onwuachi with his black nail polish and crisp looks on daytime TV, but it was only a decade ago that cargo shorts and T-shirts seemed to be the chef's civilian uniform. Don't believe me? Just look at photo shoots with Best New Chefs in the early aughts. Cargo shorts. Cargo shorts. Cargo shorts. On the fashion spectrum, male chefs of yore showed as much imagination and individuality as the tech bros of today.
You could say the same about cooks' work uniforms, too. Unless you were wearing the tablecloth apron a la Thomas Keller, you were like me back in 2006, pulling on those cheap black drawstring pants from J.B. Prince, ill-fitting white scratchy chef coats, and flimsy cotton aprons at the start of your shift. Food television helped create better dressers out of the kitchen, while innovators like Ellen Marie Bennett helped change the look on the line with her colorful custom Hedley & Bennett aprons.
Recently I talked to Bennett, a former line cook at Providence in Los Angeles and lotto announcer on TV in Mexico City, about her new business book Dream First Details Later. Cooking professionally inspired her to launch a custom apron line for restaurants in 2012, and within a few years the iconic "&" logo and colorful designs could be found in serious kitchens around the country. Home cooks took notice, too. Now 80% of her business is direct-to-consumer via the company's site. Still, the chef community remains the lifeblood of the brand, she said.
"It's something that I feel very strongly about never losing because it's the chefs that built our whole world," she said. "They're our community. They're our heartbeat. They are honest. Chefs do not mess around with fricking quality."
I recommend Bennett's book if you're looking to start a new business or if you're like me and just need to get out of your head and launch a new project.
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The following interview is edited for length and clarity.
You've written a book about dreaming big. Are you an Aquarius?
I'm a Leo.
Leos dream big, too, huh?
Exactly, they dream first and they worry about the details later, apparently.
Tell me a bit more about the size of the business.
We've sold hundreds of thousands of aprons. Hedley & Bennett started out as a B2B business. We made custom gear for restaurants order by order. As the business continued to evolve, we'd make designs that people really loved. Then we would start leaning into that, and adding the designs to our website, and then people would buy it organically. What I realized somewhere along the line was that people who were watching Top Chef and the Food Network, et cetera, also wanted to look and feel proper and legitimate, like the chefs that they admired so much. We were outfitting those chefs.
The direct-to consumer side has really evolved and grown so much. We were still trying to only service the restaurant industry, so for the past couple of years and especially through COVID, because of the pivot we made, we have dramatically leaned into the direct-to-consumer model. That means we now outfit the home cook and the pro chef. Our world has just exploded open because we're getting to be in people's home kitchens. It's so beautiful because that dignity and pride that I brought to professional spaces is now in the home of someone who's learning how to bake for the first time.
Or she loves having a garden. She wants to feel legit, too. She gets the Hedley & Bennett apron. That is where the change and growth and evolution really happened over the last couple of years.
So you're selling more aprons to consumers now than to the trade?
Yes, 80% of our business is now direct to consumer. It's a really challenging pivot because it means you're basically standing up a media company within your own organization. Now we're creating content, newsletters, website, and retention marketing. We're working on ads. It feels like we have two companies within the same organization because you have two totally different customers. It's something that I feel very strongly about never losing because it's the chefs who built our whole world. They're our community. They're our heartbeat. They are honest. Chefs do not mess around with fricking quality. They don't give a damn who you are, if you don't have good quality, you're f'ed. They keep us honest and they keep us straight and they keep telling us like, Hey, I love this thing. Change it. I want. I don't like it. Fix it. That chef community will always be around, even if it's 20% of the company.
That's actually how I think of our audience breakdown at Food & Wine. Our mass audience, what I call our civilians, that's a great majority of our readers and followers. The chef community, our F&W Pros, are just as important. If the hospitality industry is not reading what we're putting out there, then we're not doing our jobs well.
One hundred percent. I always say to our development team and our crew: We make pro-grade gear that works for everyone. If we are not making something that's pro-grade and durable for a professional kitchen, then it is not Hedley & Bennett. Even if we're making beautiful smocks that have flowers and floral things on them, I don't care. If it doesn't work in a pro kitchen, it's not us.
How many employees are at Hedley & Bennett now?
It's a small crew. We're only 36 people. We have to be tight and nimble because as we have evolved and grown as an organization, we've focused a lot on doing less [and doing it] better. Whereas when I first started, it was like, let's do everything with everyone and let's show up at every event and let's talk to every shop and let's do everything. I realized over time after saying yes to everything that not everything has an equivalent effort. How much effort you put into something vs. how much value you get from it. It's not always proportional. We never used to look at it that way. We'd just be like, "Oh, that's fine. Let's do it." There's so much more responsibility that we now have to deliver and to do something really well. We are much more focused, which has actually just created so much more bandwidth for our organization.
You wrote in the book about what happens when somebody says no and how to turn that no into a positive and quickly turn on your heels to open up some other door or avenue. Now you're in a position where you're the one saying no. What's that like?
I want to dance at everyone's wedding, be a part of every single thing. I just recognized that it's not sustainable. That took a long time to learn and took a lot of doing and failing because I was juggling too many balls and stretching our team too thin. It was not worth it. Yes, maybe we're going to say no now to more people, but in the long run, the people we say yes to, we're going to deliver at 150% versus delivering at 70%. The book says dream first, details later, not details never.
I remember when I first saw your Instagram posts with the prototype model of the mask when we were all just beginning to figure out this pandemic mess. You have sold more than a million masks, according to the website, and given away how many?
Half a million masks now.
What have you learned from that big pivot to making masks so quickly and how might that inform where you take a part of your business?
It was the most radical thing we've ever done, and I've done a lot of radical things. That was really intense. It was very scary to see our entire restaurant industry basically fold overnight. I was coming into our factory to shut the 16,000 square-foot building down and send my team home until Lord knows when. I remember feeling a sense of loss because I've always been able to just make things work no matter what happens, because I just can show up and pull it together. This felt like an instance where there was no control. It was so much bigger than all of us. It felt suffocating. The world was ending around us and there was nothing we could do about it.
I had this hopeless feeling, but I was walking my factory floor, looking at our fabrics, looking at our sewing machines, looking at the stacks of material everywhere. Just being like, this is so crazy that we're just going to shut it down. I went on Instagram and saw that Christian Siriano in New York said that he would make a face mask. I just thought, man, what a brilliant guy. A fashion designer who is going to show up for his community like this. It took me from this place of fear and propelled me into action instantaneously. That made me decide we're making a face mask. I called a friend who is a doctor and talked about masks. And we made a prototype and posted about it. I said, "This is a buy one, donate one model, because we cannot do this without you guys. We're going to show up, into the world and literally risk it all to do this. We're going to need your help."
People showed up in droves, and it was the wildest thing because we suddenly went from thinking the world is ending to never having run as fast as we were running at that moment. And because we were now making face masks, the factory was able to stay open.
Did making masks change your thinking about what you might make for the home cook?
A lot of people heard about us through these face masks. They got little tiny peeks of how we nerded out on those face masks, just like we do with aprons. They are blinged out, adjustable straps, the nose piece, and the fabric is chambray and has an anti-wrinkle coating on it. That's just who we are. Customers said, "Well, if I'm going to get a face mask then maybe I'll just pick up an apron." It created this snowball effect of new customers for us, and without meaning to they became our extended community.
It helped to clarify our direct-to-consumer focus. Part of that meant we had to stop doing a lot of things that we used to do. We had to stop doing that heavy-volume custom orders, because the supply chains of the world were just shutting down on us. We had to start saying no to certain crazy ideas that people would bring to us, because we just couldn't deliver. And we realized that it was better for the organization. And at the end of the day, the customer was happier with just taking one of our core products that really works, versus us inventing something from zero every single time.
But it took a pandemic and eight years to come to that conclusion. Sometimes challenges push you out of your comfort zone enough for you to wake up and look at reality. You have to reassess what you're doing and adapt and adjust and let go of the old playbook.
Walk me through the creative process of the book.
I really wanted people to understand the zero-to-one part of an entrepreneur's journey. The leaping into the unknown and not knowing where they're going to land and doing it anyway. And getting people out of their cloud of doubt and into action.
People are like "But I don't have a business plan, an MBA, and maybe I need to get this and I need millions of dollars before I can kick this off. And that'll make it legit enough for me to feel comfortable, to talk to people about it."
And the truth is you need a great idea that's solving a problem, and you need to have something about it that's different, but it doesn't need to be perfect. You think about how many times the iPhone has been iterated, right? We're on something like iPhone 20 right now? They didn't start with that. They evolved it over time. Progress is better than perfection and so I wanted to put all of that in a nutshell. I wanted to make it tangible so people can pick this up, feel fired up, and empowered to just fucking try.
And make it okay to fail. So much of the book is about all the failures and the challenges that I ran into. It's not some love story about how great everything was.
I also convinced Penguin Random House to make it a business book that was colorful. That was important to me too, because business is not black and white. It's layered and it's nuanced. And so why the hell are all the business books black and white?
We all have so much fear of failure. And this book seems like the antidote to that.
It normalizes it. Hey, you want to be successful? You got to show up and be willing to take the punches. And they're going to come no matter how perfect you are, no matter how planned out you are, they're going to happen. So just start trying and recognize that every punch is an opportunity for you to learn something. Don't take it so personally. Recognize this is a slice of the journey. Lean into failure because you're going to learn that much more.
Let's talk about hustle. It's a part of the branding, it's a part of the mission. Anybody who follows you on Instagram knows how hard you work. As we're looking at this brave new world, as things open back up again, how do you create a more sustainable business? We're seeing people in the hospitality industry who aren't going to come back and take part in that hustle anymore. Talk about the hustle that got you to this point now, and as a leader, is this something that you can sustain? Or are you thinking about maybe working differently?
Hustle definitely got it going. For my dream, gasoline was the hustle. It was the thing that got me out in the morning. It was a thing that got me through every crazy explosion that happened, which were frequent and often. But the hustle, to me, meant show up no matter what happens and get to the finish line every time no matter what happens. And maybe that's a little bit of my restaurant line cook DNA, right?
You don't walk out. You have to get to the finish line. You complete the orders that are on your board, no matter what, no matter how many sauces you run out of, no matter how many dishes go south, you just keep going. And I remember being flooded when we were at Providence and it's like, the bus boys are yelling "Where's the dish?" and chef's like, "We're waiting on table five, the meat's getting cold!" It was just always chaos, and yet you put your blinders on. You finish the dish because there's nowhere to run to.
So I took that same feeling and applied it when I walked into this business world that I entered. And at the beginning that was fine. There's a moment in the book where I talk about getting off the bike to fix the bike. That was the moment when my team members almost had an intervention with me. They pulled me aside. My CFO was like, "You are going to kill yourself if you don't reassess how you are doing this because you've just been running so hard and you are like a ball of energy, but even you can't just keep doing this. Let's look at this differently. You're killing yourself. The team is overwhelmed and overworked. We have to do something differently."
I was just running so hard and couldn't even see all of that. I had to learn to trust other people. As the business grew, I was actually damaging the company more by trying to do it all. And that was one of the biggest shifts I had. That took us to the next level. Like we really expanded as an organization after we made those choices. Now I have this unbelievable team of people around me that I trust. We have a Head of Product. We have a Head of Finance, we have a Head of Growth. And each one of those people are taking a brick of burden off of my shoulder and putting it on theirs and saying, "I'm going to own this piece."
You have to embrace the people around you. You cannot work 24 hours a day and kill yourself to push your business forward. You need to adapt.
I read that it takes 12 people to cut, sew, and create each apron. You and I both made $10 an hour as line cooks. What are you doing now as a business leader to make sure that the blue collar workers at the apron factory are taken care of?
Every time we could afford it, we've expanded our core benefits as a business. I had never had health care as a line cook. When we began offering health care benefits to our team, some had worked at big companies, and they're like, "That's great, thanks." Other people had never had health care benefits. Over the years we've also expanded vacation time, and we really allow people to take time if they need it.
We work hard, but we live our lives, too. I mean, COVID really reinforced that. We can all work our butts off, but we need time to reset or else we're just going to burn ourselves out. When you have a good team and they're all doing what they need to do, you don't need to be so stringent and micromanage. If you need time to go do something, go do it. You have a life outside of Hedley and Bennett.
That's been a really great shift in the culture of our company. We're still working our asses off, but we take breaks. That's the difference.
You moved from Los Angeles to Mexico City at 19. What was the weirdest job and what did you learn from it?
I was the lottery announcer for Mexican television. I would literally go on TV in Mexico City Monday through Friday or whatever it was and announce the winning lotto numbers. It taught me to show up, it taught me to be able to talk to anybody, and it got me over any sort of stage fright I had ever had to be on a stage to talk and just do it.
I also worked as a simultaneous translator for the Mexican Railroad Union so I would go into really intense meetings when I was like 20 years old, translating simultaneously between two people. Each side had their own translator and I was the Mexican side translator. Everyone was in suits. It was so mentally exhausting and it was like a two-hour meeting with just back and forth negotiating. But I loved it because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. It showed me that I could do it if I put myself in a place and just commit to doing it and practice, I can get to the other side no matter how complicated, no matter how weird and bizarre.
Meanwhile, all of my friends in the United States were graduating from Berkeley, had fancy jobs, and were buying a house and getting the white picket fence. I was a simultaneous translator? But it was that winding road to take that big giant leap when I said yes to making that first apron order. If I hadn't said yes to all these crazy jobs and showed up and figured it out. I don't know if I would've had the courage to start my business.
How are you filling your well these days and what are you doing intentionally to make sure that you can show up and lead your team?
I have definitely adjusted my life a bit. Sometimes I work more from home than from the office and I do that for a couple of reasons. One is to give the team more space. I had no idea I was a total micromanager. I've learned to trust and allow the people that we hire to do the jobs that they were hired for because they love it. They're committed, they're part of the apron squad, and that has really allowed me to let go of a lot of areas and focus on what I'm really good at.
Now I'm so much more focused on product development and the brand side of things and working with our marketing team versus doing everything and that has given me more time. I also sleep a lot more, I sleep eight hours a night religiously because it's so important to be on it in the daytime when you rested enough and those are just basic things.
If I'm exhausted, I take a bath. If I need to chill out, I do a Peloton ride. I do these Reels on Instagram for speedy cooking like speedy tacos. I still love to cook: it recharges me and I like to share with other people. It's taken me a long time to get to that place where I'm like, "Okay, my entire life doesn't have to be work and I'm going to balance that out a little bit." Balance, it's a tricky term. Work life balance, I don't love, but just this idea of thinking about more than one area in your life is kind of my approach to it.
Who are a couple of your most trusted advisors and what did they teach you?
Marty Bailey was the chief manufacturing officer at American Apparel. He was the man who set up all the sewing floors there, and he worked with us for a good long time when we were first setting up our factory. He said, "The thing that you should always remember, Ellen, is to say please, thank you, and what do you think?"
I love that because you're making people feel heard, you're making them feel important and valued and you're also acknowledging them for anything that they've done and it's simple. It's just the simple truth. Another one that I love is from my magical Jewish brilliant uncle Ted who said your word is worth gold. Never commit to something you can't deliver and he taught me to never spend more than I made and that is one of the things that really sustained us in the early days when I had nothing but myself.
I never spent more than I made and I reinvested every penny back into the business so instead of hitting a big account and going out and splurging, I tightened up even more and I would just put the dollars into the organization and that helped us get a little nest egg, little by little, brick by brick.