Q&A with Jeni & Ellen

By Claire Hoppens

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Just before they headed off in an RV on an action-packed, multi-state tour, Jeni of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and Ellen Bennett of Hedley & Bennett (aka “The Apron Lady”) sat down with me for a Q&A about their businesses, inspiration and trials of entrepreneurship.

Jeni launched her ice cream business 20 years ago here in Columbus and through two decades of hard work, relentless creativity and passion has grown the business to 23 locations across the country, including 11 local scoop shops.

Ellen dreamed up Hedley & Bennett when she found herself, a talented line cook in Los Angeles, needing an emotional boost in the kitchen. She designed an apron that would lift the spirits of its wearer, inspiring confidence and growing an #apronsquad thousands strong.

Both Jeni and Ellen have strong visions for their brands and their communities. They embody an entrepreneurial drive that pushes them forward into new experiences, places and relationships and they strive to continue making those connections with dreamers and makers along the way. We thank them for their time and willingness to share!

What inspires you about each other, personally and professionally?

Jeni: To get some bearing, when I first met Ellen I feel like we had so much in common. You know when you can tell that someone is the right kind of similar and the right kind of different from you? We’re both makers so we both produce something. And I think it is a certain kind of personality and I think that’s also the same personality that we encounter on the road. 

Ellen is super positive and warm and welcoming to everyone in her world, which is great. I’m a little more subdued I think.

Ellen: Some of the things that I love about Jeni is that I’ve been at this for four a half years and Jeni’s been at this for 20 years; the drive that she has, she just keeps hustling every day like it’s the first day, at least that’s what it looks and feels like to me. She’s somebody that I consider a good friend of mine. That really is Jeni: a true hustler, every day and every minute. I want to cover the world in aprons and she wants to cover the world in ice cream.  Why not hold hands while we do it?

On Entrepreneurship

Jeni: I think entrepreneurship can be extraordinarily isolating, to the point where it’s lonely. You are the only person who feels the way you do about this vision and it’s the only thing you think about. There’s a light on for me about what I do with ice cream every single moment of every single day. Whatever I’m doing, I’m in it. When I wake up, I’m in it. When I go to sleep I cant sleep because of it. Every detail is constantly on. And the future and the vision and our resources and what we’re capable of and what the limitations are right now are always, always being balanced in my mind at any time. And I’m the only one crazy enough to believe that we can do what we’re going to do. The artisan ice cream is a billion dollar industry, but back for most of my career it wasn’t like that. People didn’t buy it. For the first four years four people a day bought it. But even now it’s the same thing. In your family, in your world, people just don’t get it.

Ellen: People tell me all the time, “Just take it easy. Take a break.” I’m like, you don’t get it. There’s no time to take a break. It’s so exciting to both of us what we’re doing that why would we want to take a break?

Jeni: So when I met Ellen it was like, “You’re doing it too?” We both get each other because we’re both doing the same thing. We’ve been doing it on our own for so long, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do this tour is just to link up and do what we’ve always done…. I do events in the stores, I get on the road. Ice cream brings people together, that’s my job. I bring people together. When we do store openings we get 500 people that come out but I’m always by myself – with my team but I’m always the one.

Ellen: We’ve both been building our own worlds and our own communities alone and in my case, were all about the apron squad. Anyone who wears the apron is in “the squad.” I would go to all these different cities and go around and explore and meet makers and talk to people and now I’m like, I actually have a copilot to do it with.

It’s pretty amazing seeing this lady we just went to visit, her name’s Allison and she has Igloo Letterpress. She’s wearing our aprons and this is the first time that I get to meet her and she’s making us a poster for our road trip. Like full circle. That means so much to me.

On Modest Beginnings

Ellen: So I started four years ago. Totally boot-strapped it out of my house. I was a cook and I was a personal chef at the same time. I saw such a contrast, such a lack of care for the way the front of house and back of house felt in a restaurant and I thought, “Why the heck are we back here all making this gorgeous food and yet we all look and feel really shitty about ourselves?,” to put it bluntly. I thought if there was a way to change that and shift that and make something that gives you a little sense of pride and dignity, why not make that for teams? Why not makes all kitchens feel that way? Then you can do your job a little bit better no matter. If you’re the dishwasher you too can one day be a great big amazing chef or become the guy that does grill. I remember when I was a cook my whole dream was to get to be on the grill station. It wasn’t like I wanted to go and be a TV chef. I wanted to cook on grill. If you can have something that helps push you and you can be your own cheerleader because of your uniform, that’s amazing. It creates camaraderie as well.

And, like Jeni said, when I started making artisan aprons I would get pats on the shoulder like, “that’s so cute” and “have fun doing your little project.”

Jeni: Now she’s got knock offs in China!

Ellen: We found our niche and we went for it like there was noting else in the world left but to do that and I think you have to respect that for people. You can’t just go in and do the exact same thing with the exact same ideas. Be original. Be innovative. Find your own voice and be your own brand or else all you’re going to be is chasing someone else’s vision and waiting for someone to come up with another idea.

On Realities of the Job

Ellen: It is significantly harder than it looks. It might look like Jeni and I are always on adventures and jumping around but the truth is, at the end of the day, we have people that we’re responsible for. We have a company that’s relying on us to drive the ship. You have to drive the ship through all the scary stuff that’s going down.

Jeni: Entrepreneurship feels like in the Sci-Fi movies when the spaceship is coming back to earth and its reentry. There’s all this fire everywhere. You don’t know if you’re going to make it back to earth.  

Ellen: Sometimes you do crash, and then you have to go pull everybody out… and make sure that you hold your head up high. It does take a special beast of a person to be able to maintain it and, referencing Allison {of Igloo Letterpress}, we asked her for a little piece of advice we could take away and she said, “If there’s something else that makes you happy then do that. If this isn’t your full-fledged vision and passion and you can’t do anything but live and eat it – don’t do it.” I thought that was a really good point because it takes that much motivation and that much push to actually achieve something, and if you don’t have it all the way you will fail.

Goals of the Tour

Ellen: I think it’s definitely inspiring to people to say, “This isn’t easy but if you want to do it then by god get out there and do it. Live life to the fullest.”

We can focus on the stuff we don’t have or we can focus on the stuff we do have. That’s what this trip is all about. Focus on the good things we do have. Focus on the fact that there are amazing people doing stuff every day everywhere that you too can go out and be friends with and that you can get out on road and met all these mazing people.

{While on the tour, Jeni and Ellen stopped in Louisville, Birmingham, Nashville and Atlanta with pitstops in between. They held makers meet ups, spoke at schools and to groups, and connected at restaurants, farms and shops along the way.}

Where do you find inspiration?

Ellen: Every time I go out on the road its incredibly inspiring to me to meet people like Allison {of Igloo Letterpress}, people that are doing it. They were like, “Yes, this is going to be hard as hell but I’m going to do it anyway,” and I feel like that gives me reason to keep going. I love going to new cities and meeting people.

I had no idea when I started this how many people needed aprons that were not just chefs. Any maker needs a uniform.

Jeni: Aprons are the new blazers.

Ellen: People definitely inspire me. Having a company that’s growing is extremely scary and inspiring because it gives you drive to work harder because you have all these people counting on you.

We are so crazy about innovation. Every tiny little piece of feedback we get, we take it to heart.

Jeni: Our customers, the feedback they give us, and how things sell are how we know if were going in the right direction. There will be flavors that are huge blockbusters for the season but that we wouldn’t be able to sell all year round.

Elen: Same with us. We have our originals collection, the classics, and then we put out new stuff all the time. And similarly to Jeni we don’t do seasons. We just put stuff out as we like it. If it does well we put it into our collection. We’re constantly innovating and coming up with fun ways to use different fabrics and actually expanding our lines. We don’t just do aprons anymore- we do chef coats, we do women’s chef coats. We actually do extra small up to 4XL on our men’s chefs coat. I wanted everybody to be on the bandwagon with us and not exclude anybody.

On Competition

Ellen: We’re not about just having a little apron company. We’re about the revolution of the uniform. We want to be the Nike of the culinary world. That’s a huge mountain to climb.  So I think we’re constantly looking at what’s happening around us. But I rarely get inspiration from other chef world things. I get inspiration from clothing, from design, from other fields that don’t have anything to do with aprons. Food. Colors. Art. Museums. Nature and being outside. I get a lot of inspiration from colorful fruits and vegetables and am constantly relating things to food products. 

Jeni: The one thing I think people have gotten wrong in ice cream is that they’ve taken all the fun out of it. I think when you look back at anything we’ve ever done there’s been quirky fun. The photography’s always been slightly imperfect. Whether the lightings in the studio or natural lighting, our packaging has never been all that serious. Even though it still looks artisanal or even artistic, I think when we see certain knockoffs they’ve taken all the fun out of it. We have never forgotten that it’s fun.

We’re making ice cream. There are serious aspects of ice cream which are really important in how we produce it and where we’re getting our ingredients from and how we produce it, but in the end the full experience at the front of the counter is so joyful. We want people to come in and for it to about them and not about us anymore.

While Jeni and Ellen have wrapped up their #icecreamandapronsforall tour, you can learn more about them online: https://jenis.com // http://www.hedleyandbennett.com.