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With new cafe, Army veteran brings Southern baking to Tysons workers

Tysons’ newest eatery won’t be found in the usual malls and mixed-use developments. Instead, it has set up base in a cluster of corporate office buildings where Jones Branch Drive curves parallel to the Dulles Toll Road.

Welcomed with a ribbon cutting and prayer, the latter courtesy of Fort Foote Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Joseph Lyles, Mrs. Jo’s Petite Eats celebrated its grand opening Tuesday (June 7) on the ground floor of PenFed Credit Union’s headquarters at 7940 Jones Branch Drive.

Owned and run by U.S. Army veteran Erinn Roth, the roughly 2,800-square-foot cafe will serve as a cafeteria for the building, which also houses the consulting firm LMI, but it’s open to the general public, including other workers and residents in Tysons.

While the cafe is tucked away, integrating retail, restaurants, and other amenities with offices will help turn Tysons into a place where people can “live, work, play, and now, eat,” says David Kelley, director of national business investment for the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

“Tysons is becoming a place where people are actually living,” Kelley said. “So, if they can go some place and get something really good that’s walkable or close by, that helps the county out. That helps with the infrastructure of the county and for people wanting to be here.”

A native of Enterprise, Mississippi, Roth served in the Army for 24 years, including stints in Korea, Germany, and Afghanistan. She has been an avid baker for much of her life, but it wasn’t until after her mother died in 2015 that she committed to baking professionally.

Roth says she had been contemplating retiring from the military — which she eventually did in 2017 — and floated the idea of baking desserts as a way to stay busy.

“My mother was like, ‘Well, sweetie, whatever you decide to do, you’d be successful,’ and then, she passed, and…it just turned my world,” Roth told FFXnow.

Naming the business after her mother, Jo Bradford Hardaway, Roth launched Ms. Jo’s Petite Sweets out of Lorton’s Frontier Kitchen in 2016, offering cakes, cookies, and other desserts with Southern and French influences.

The bakery soon evolved into a private events and corporate catering business, but like the rest of the industry, Roth saw those gigs vanish when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020. She almost quit until she “remembered the name” that the business represented, she told a crowd of friends, family, and county and PenFed officials at the grand opening.

Help came in various forms: a job catering a wedding, an appearance on the FOX competition show “Crime Scene Kitchen,” where she made the semifinals, and most crucially, acceptance into the PenFed Foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program.

According to PenFed President and CEO James Schenck, the company was so impressed by Roth’s skills that she was invited to interview for the chef position at the cafeteria needed for its headquarters, which moved to Tysons from Alexandria in 2016.

“She hands down blew everybody away,” said Jamie Gayton, PenFed’s executive vice president for member operations and global fixed assets. “She was fantastic, passionate, engaged, developed a plan that she wanted to execute, and we were very excited to support her on that.”

PenFed invested about $500,000 to build out the cafeteria. While the company is still utilizing a hybrid work model, with about 20% of its 700 Tysons employees coming to the office on any given day, Schenck sees Mrs. Jo’s Petite Eats as a perk that could not only boost in-person attendance, but also help attract and retain workers in the future.

Though Roth’s usual desserts are available, the cafe also serves baked goods, like biscuits, muffins, and croissants, as well as sandwiches and rice and salad bowls. It’s currently limited to breakfast and lunch hours, which could range from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., depending on the day, but brunch will be added in about three months.

Now a resident of a military installation in D.C., Roth hopes to expand to additional locations in a couple of years, but for now, she’s focused on making sure this first site sticks the landing.

“It’s been a long journey, a hard journey, but I’m here, and I believe that God placed people in my life that prepared me for a time such as this,” Roth said, citing faith and family as her two cornerstones. “So, I’m just over the moon right now, and the fact that my first brick-and-mortar’s in McLean, in Tysons Corner is just amazing.”

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