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She Started a Side Hustle While Working 2 Jobs as a Line Cook for $22 an Hour Combined — Now It's an 8-Figure Brand You've Probably Seen on TV Ellen Bennett, founder of kitchenware brand Hedley & Bennett, had a big idea in 2012 — and the "willpower and chutzpah" to bring it to life.

By Amanda Breen

Key Takeaways

  • Ellen Bennett worked as a line cook and personal chef when she came up with the idea for Hedley & Bennett.
  • She took a "scrappy" approach to building her side hustle, and today, it's grown into an eight-figure brand.
  • Bennett shares the value in making connections, listening to customers and playing "the long game" for success.
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For Ellen Bennett, founder of kitchenware brand Hedley & Bennett, food has been a life-long love. "I'm half-Mexican and half-English, and so I grew up with this very unusual combination of eating tamales and caldo de pollo, and things that are very Mexican, alongside shepherd's pie and tea with my English grandpa," she tells Entrepreneur.

But before Bennett built the apron business named for her English and Mexican families, she attended culinary school in Mexico City, where it was more affordable than in the U.S. She took modeling jobs and translation gigs to support herself there, then moved back to Los Angeles, where she was raised, to work at some of the city's best restaurants.

Image Credit: Shayan Asgharnia. Ellen Bennett.

"I've always put one foot in front of the other towards the thing that I want to do, never stop and don't stare too long because then you'll get scared and won't do it," Bennett says. "So I keep myself moving always and forever. And I feel like that has been one of the successful traits for me: I don't analyze — I just do."

In 2012, at 24, Bennett was doing a whole lot: She worked as a line cook at Providence, which boasts a two-star Michelin rating, and at Bäco Mercat, pulling in $22 an hour between the two jobs. In the mornings, she also worked as a personal chef for a family. "It was around the clock," she recalls, adding that 14-hour days within the industry were par for the course.

Related: She Used $10,000 in Savings to Turn Her Side Hustle Into an 8-Figure Brand You've Probably Seen

"If I can make the [equivalent] uniform piece of dignity [and] roll [that] into this world of cooking, maybe I change this whole industry."

Despite the "hustle" of her day-to-day, Bennett had a big idea, one that served as a "funny through line" from her life as a "hardcore line cook" to the "other life" she led — in Mexico City she'd often donned suits for work events, and as an avid runner with marathons under her belt, she knew a thing or two about athletic attire that could stand up to the rigors of the sport.

"So I combined the two in my head," Bennett says, "and I thought, Man, if I can make the [equivalent] uniform piece of dignity [and] roll [that] into this world of cooking, maybe I change this whole industry. Because we're getting our asses handed to us. We work so hard, [and] everybody looks like shit."

A few weeks later, a chef at one of the restaurants where Bennett worked presented her with the perfect opportunity to start her side hustle. He said he was going to order aprons for everybody, and Bennett, who'd been thinking nonstop about chef coats and various aspects of the uniform, "blurted out in Ellen Bennett fashion" that she had an apron company.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Hedley & Bennett.

Related: At 23, She Started a Side Hustle for 'Quick Money.' Now the Business Brings in More Than $1 Million a Month — and Boasts Celebrity Fans.

Of course, Bennett didn't have a business at that point, but she said she'd been working on an idea — "and by working, I meant it was in my head," she admits. Still, she managed to convince the chef to place an order for 40 aprons, and with "absolutely nothing other than willpower and chutzpah," she "started the whole damn thing." Bennett showed up anywhere she could find chefs who might be interested in her aprons — from farmers' markets to Eater LA events.

"I would walk up to people and just be like, 'Hey, I'm a cook at Providence. I work there, and I have an apron company. Can I show you what I'm working on?'" Bennett says. "So it was very much from a place of humility, but I also was shameless about talking to anyone. And I never hid behind a computer waiting for people to email me. I just stood in front of you, and if you had ears, I was going to talk to you."

"'Oh my god, Japanese denim? That's cool. American canvas? Hell yeah.'"

Bennett didn't have a sewing background, but she'd always loved design, so her process in those early days "was truly scrappy." She'd sit down with chefs and listen to their pain points (which she knew all too well as an industry professional), drilling down on the finer yet crucial details that so often went ignored in the apron game — like durable fabric.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Hedley & Bennett.

Quickly, Bennett leaned into "elevating the core materials," much like how a Michelin-starred restaurant raises the bar for food. "We're still just selling food," Bennett explains, "but it's the best fish you've ever had in the world because we sourced it from the best place. So I applied that same logic." And Bennett's aprons were an instant hit.

Related: For Years, This Black Founder Learned an Uncommon But Essential Craft on the Side. Now His Creations Are Beloved By Celebrity Chefs — and Can Sell for More Than $1,000.

"These chefs got really nerdy about it," Bennett says. "They're like, 'Oh my god, Japanese denim? That's cool. American canvas? Hell yeah'. And then, instead of using plastic hardware, I'd be like, 'What if we use brass hardware?' And they'd be like, 'Yes, I love that.' So I essentially just collaborated and listened."

Now, Hedley & Bennett is an eight-figure brand, and if you've tuned in to any cooking show or show about cooking, you've no doubt seen it in action: 70% of chefs on the Food Network wear Hedley & Bennett aprons, and nearly every chef who appears on Top Chef and The Bear is donning one too, according to data provided by the brand. Hedley & Bennett also boasts partnerships with The Beatles, NASA and Crocs, among others, and has since expanded into general kitchenware, including knives, potholders and more.

"Even if you go out and raise $50 million, you still have to build community to get customers."

Although Bennett's apron idea resonated with other chefs immediately and has seen enormous growth in the past decade-plus, she stresses that Hedley & Bennett was far from an overnight success — and that, realistically, there's no such thing.

The brand didn't have any outside investment. Instead, she grew Hedley & Bennett "the old-school way," reinvesting every penny back into the business as she built "brick by brick," "street by street" and "customer by customer," securing that essential brand loyalty along the way. And the people she sold her aprons to in the beginning remain customers, Bennett notes: "There's a love that exists that you can't buy from an Instagram ad."

"Even if you go out and raise $50 million, you still have to build community to get customers," Bennett says. "You just happen to have more money in the bank. Are you willing to show up and talk to people? Are you willing to listen, pivot, adapt your product to them and what they actually need? Everyone goes through the same struggles. It's just how many resources you can throw at it. And because I had limited resources, I got a lot more creative than I would have if I had all the money in the world."

Related: Using Social Media Alone to Build Your Brand's Online Community Means You Risk Losing It All. Here's Why.

What's more, Hedley & Bennett's initial business-to-business (B2B) model meant a "slow and steady" approach that benefited from "brutally honest chefs" who didn't mince words when it came to letting Bennett know what was and wasn't working. The feedback was invaluable, but despite an influx of requests for additional products, Hedley & Bennett remained "hyper-focused" on putting out the perfect customizable apron — until the pandemic hit. We need to actually create a systemized streamlined menu of how we outfit these restaurants in a way that we can scale it, Bennett realized.

So Hedley & Bennett incorporated a direct-to-consumer approach. Within one month, the brand went from shipping everything internally to shipping with third-party logistics (3PL). "It was not clean or smooth or anything like that," Bennett says. "It was just the right thing for the business, and the whole world couldn't meet in person. So it was like, 'How do we get it online as fast as possible?'"

From there, Bennett considered all of the feedback they'd received — and which products it made sense to tackle next. "We're like, 'Okay, well, what's the natural extension from aprons that's an essential, because we don't like making tchotchkes.'" Bennett recalls. "We're all about longevity, quality on things you need, not just like a lemon squeezer, which is fine, but you can squeeze a lemon with your hands, too." That led the brand to knives.

Image Credit: Shelby Moore.

"There's nothing wrong with taking longer to build something great."

Hedley & Bennett's journey has been lengthy and full of "little peaks and valleys" trending upward overall, but because she's "such an action-oriented person," Bennett says she rarely dwells on what she didn't do along the way.

Still, in the beginning, Bennett does wish she'd taken a step back to value herself and her contributions the way that other people did. "I don't mean that in an ego-driven way," she says. "It's not about being like I'm the coolest, I'm the best, but it's simply respecting yourself for the work that you did and saying, 'Not only did I build the table — I built the chair that I got to sit in at the table. I made this.'"

Image Credit: Evan Robinson.

Related: Don't Just Sit At the Table, Flip It. A Reflection for Women Entrepreneurs.

And her best advice for other entrepreneurs who want to take their big idea from side hustle to multimillion-dollar brand?

"I'm a huge believer in the long game," she says. "You can start something out of your house with no money and have a viable, profitable business that you are a majority owner of many years later. And that is awesome. There's nothing wrong with taking longer to build something great. I know our whole lives are oriented towards speed and how quickly things grow and [becoming] a unicorn, but you can be a long-game unicorn too."

This WOMEN ENTREPRENEUR® article is part of our ongoing series highlighting the stories, challenges and triumphs of running a business as a woman.

Amanda Breen

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Features Writer

Amanda Breen is a senior features writer at Entrepreneur.com. She is a graduate of Barnard College and received an MFA in writing at Columbia University, where she was a news fellow for the School of the Arts.

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