Ellen Bennett may be known for her colorful aprons and playful spirit, but she means business when it comes to weaving design with functionality. Case in point: After theerupted in the U.S. this spring, her kitchen wear company, Hedley & Bennett, instantly launched into producing even more essential gear these days — face masks.
"When you can use business as a vessel for good, it kind of makes you pull off miracles. And my team, you know, we did things that I never even imagined we could do. To flip an entire supply chain within 24 hours is basically a miracle," Bennett told CBS News.
The entrepreneur and CEO said she "nerded out" while developing the face mask with her friend, pediatric orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Robert Cho. The masks became nothing less than a call to action, thanks to a "buy one, donate one" model.
"That contributed to a lot of the viral growth that we had around our masks. It wasn't just a mask. We called it the 'Wake Up & Fight Mask,'" Bennett said. "And that made people feel like, 'Man, I'm not just buying this thing to buy this thing. I'm actually contributing to frontline workers who are on the lines out there. And I am making them have this mask.'"
"It was really special and so much more than I ever imagined in such a scary time," she added. "It almost became like a little bit of a ray of hope that we were united together through this product."
1,000% growth online
With the help of the Hedley & Bennett community, also known as the "apron squad," the company says they have donated more than 300,000 masks to essential workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of face masks in public settings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Prior to the pandemic, half of Hedley & Bennett's customers were from the restaurant and hospitality industry. Now, direct-to-consumer customers account for 80% of sales, with industry clients making up the rest.
"So that was a drastic and very volatile kind of pivot. And it happened naturally on our site. And the masks created this sort of halo effect across our entire website and put a lot of new consumers in front of our line of product," Bennett said.
The shift in customers has led to a whopping 1,000% jump in online revenue from a year ago, according to Hedley & Bennett.
"It's a new chapter. And it's kind of like, we grew up. And we stepped up into this new stage. And that's awesome," Bennett said.
"Best damn apron"
Bennett's journey to becoming the so-called "Apron Lady" started when she was a line cook at the award-winning restaurant Providence and the now-closed Bäco Mercat in Los Angeles.
"I realized that nobody had a good uniform. No one was thinking about it. And everyone just kind of wore the same junky stuff day after day, year after year. And I wanted to change that," Bennett recalled. "I wanted to make the best damn apron out there and have it not only look good but be incredibly functional, or as we like to call it, 'super functional.'"
She's gone from selling her aprons at farmers markets on weekends to outfitting the world's top chefs, celebrities and home cooks with Hedley & Bennett gear.
Asked whether the pandemic has changed the way she sees her business and role as CEO, Bennett emphatically responded, "Yes!" with a laugh, adding that it has transformed "the way I look at business, life, my personal life, my marriage — everything."
"You had to take your glasses off and wipe them in life and say, 'OK, let's refocus.' And that old playbook you had just got lit on fire and thrown out the window," Bennett said. Her new guiding principle: "Do less better."
"Everything is about evolution, growth and forward progress," Bennett said.
Not surprisingly, progress has come with its fair share of hurdles. In March, Bennett was somber as she shared on one of her Instagram videos, "This is absolutely nuts, and it feels like such a shakeout, it's not even funny." Yet, as Bennett has been forced to reinvent the way she operates her business, she's encouraging her community with the message that "we're all in this together."
"If you survive this, you're kind of like able to survive most things. And we are much stronger than we think we are. So when you go through times of challenge, it just makes you more resilient even if you don't realize that in the moment," Bennett said. "So I think of 2020 as this giant learning opportunity and reset for the entire world. And if I can use Hedley & Bennett as a way to channel that and champion that and get that message out to people and make people feel hopeful, like, why not keep going, you know?"