Expanding Through Collaborations and How to Move From B2B to DTC
Ellen Bennett, founder and CEO of Hedley & Bennett, on building her company using old-school methods
Sometimes, it’s best to get back to the basics. Whether you are talking business or just general human interaction, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of overthinking things when really all you need to do is keep it simple.
Ellen Bennett knows this more than most, and she’s built her company, Hedley & Bennett into an undeniable success by sticking to that principle. Hedley & Bennett produces high-quality kitchen wear that has been featured in more than 4,000 restaurants and cafes, adopted by celebrity chefs like Martha Stewart and David Chang, and is used by hundreds of thousands of home chefs every day. But the story started much more modestly. Bennett began with a true grassroots approach, selling aprons out of her Mini Cooper, talking to and pitching every chef she knew, and working her connections to keep growing her business.
“It began with this idea of just making a good apron for the restaurant world, making the perfect apron,” Bennett says. “And it quickly evolved into this giant community of chefs that also felt like they needed that same product. And it was just me out of my house, out of my mini Cooper, running to farmer’s markets, talking to chefs, really doing a very grassroots marketing approach to everything because frankly, I didn’t have any investors. I didn’t have any outside capital. I had me, myself and I against the world and my product.”
The true definition of a hustle, Bennet began by sourcing her personal network and selling to any chef in her area she could get in contact with,,followed by asking them to introduce her to other chefs they knew. Eventually, she landed in the Momofuku kitchen, closing a deal with famed chef David Chang, and she’s been rising ever since.
But the climb hasn’t been without its stumbles,it never is. In fact, in the early days Bennet says that her biggest order to date got behind schedule and the company failed to meet the full order. It was a devastating blow, but Bennett handled it with integrity and grace.
“We had to just suck it up and make it right,” she says. “I refunded part of it. I overnighted stuff. I covered the cost of it. I called the assistant and spoke to her personally and said, ‘I’m so sorry. This is what occurred. It’s on us. We really messed up and we’re going to make it right.’ And just owning your mistakes. Especially when you’re a small business, hiding behind emails [won’t work] pick up the phone. There’s nothing like human contact, especially when things go south. Do not try and resolve a problem or a deeply rooted issue on an email, have the balls to call the person and fix it.”
Keeping it simple is what has helped Bennet build a reputation of trust and authenticity, which she has also carried with her into the partnerships she’s entered into that have helped the brand grow.
“In the early days of Hedley & Bennett, we did so many partnerships with so many people,” Bennett says. “And we said yes to everything because we were learning, we were exploring, we were trying things. And I found that a lot of times we had the chutzpah and initiative to make it work and sometimes the other side didn’t. And so we found that we were doing a lot of the work…. So we kissed some frogs and learned what we needed to ask. And I don’t fault anyone for it, but learning to say no is just as important to learn than to say yes. You need to be able to draw the line.”
When Bennett does decide to work with other businesses or chefs, it is about finding a partner that can bring just as much to the table as she does. And she’s been able to foster impressive partnerships using that strategy.
“When we did our collab with Madewell, we created the aprons, we manufactured them and they manufactured all of the apparel,” Bennett says. “So we did a jumpsuit and shirts and bandanas and a few other items. So things like a 12-piece collection and all the aprons were made by us. The designs came from their design team, combined with our input and edits. And the way we did it was we brought the function and the core base. And then they brought the design elements that they wanted to plug in from the world of Madewell, and those are the best collaborations, when you find somebody that does something that you don’t do and vice versa.”
These days, Hedley & Bennett is thriving not just in the B2B and retail space, but online as well. In fact, Bennett says that 80% of the business is now brought in through DTC, which meant that the entire backend of the Hedley and Bennett system needed to go through an overhaul.
To hear more about that and the entire Hedley & Bennett story, tune in to Up Next in Commerce, here.
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