Passionate Chef; Focused Business Empire-Builder; Ambitious and God-fearing Woman
When I was early in my military career, I asked my platoon sergeant, how do you know it’s time to retire? He said, “Ma’am, you’ll know.” Twenty years later I told my parents, “Hey Mom and Dad, I’m going to retire, and I think I’m going to make desserts.” Of course, my mom, like most mothers, was my biggest cheerleader. She said, “Whatever you decide to do, sweetie, you’ll be successful.”
A month later, my mom passed away suddenly and my whole world changed. I had talked to her that very evening; we were just laughing and talking. I never thought that’d be the last time I’d hear her. I got that call that night and I stayed up about 24 hours after that, calling everyone else. I had to go into work that day because we had a former soldier coming in to present her case and I didn’t want to fail that soldier, but I was in robot mode at that point.
My mom’s passing changed our lives. She was the center of our universe, and we all orbited around her. She was the light. I was in remote mode: go to work, come back home, lay down and cry. This went on for about a month and a half, and then my sister-in-law sent me a clip from Steve Harvey talking about taking the jump; that you should just jump. Something told me, girl, get up off your butt and start that dessert business. So, I started my business in Maryland, and I named it after my mom: Ms. Jo’s Petite Sweets.
I can say a lot about my mom. People just naturally gravitated toward her. She was a straight shooter, and she was a southern lady. As you see in my logo, she wore pearls with her apron. She loved her family, and I wanted the world to know what she meant to my siblings and me, so I named my business after her as an eternal tribute to her and her legacy.
I was born in Forest, Mississippi, to George and Jo Hardaway. After my dad came back from the Vietnam War, my parents moved back to Mississippi, where they put a house on my dad’s land that he inherited from his parents.
I have two sisters and two brothers: Cassandra, George Jr., Tristan, and Joan. They are my true ride or dies and I love them to death. I have the best siblings in the world.
On the Hardaway side, my family has been traced back to two brothers who left a plantation in Georgia on wagons, bound for something new in Mississippi. My mother was a Bradford, and we trace our family tree to Joe Bradford, who was sold into slavery three different times, the last time in Bradford, Mississippi. He was of mixed heritage, as were a lot of the older Bradfords, so they are very fair skinned.
My ancestors were hard-working people. They believed in buying land and keeping it. In fact, all the land on both sides remains with our family; I’m talking about six generations now. It was family first. We were really big on family celebrations, and helping other family members out. Nobody went without. I would say that’s something handed down on both sides. The family was big on farming its land to grow what you need, so they were very self-sufficient. I reckon they had to be that way because they grew up in Mississippi, starting on the back end of the Emancipation Proclamation, so there were things there were not afforded to people who look like me.
We grew up just being our own people, having to rely on ourselves, not anybody else. We were taught, unfortunately, that you’ve got to be twice as smart to be half as good. So both sides of my family are big on education. You had to be able to have an intelligent discussion. It wasn’t if you were going to college, it was what college are you going to attend? They pushed education. They pushed hard work. They pushed being a business owner. A lot of the members of my family on the Hardaway side were either teachers or ministers, while relatives on my mother’s side tend to be business owners. They always push hard work, do your own thing, and don’t take handouts. They are also notorious for their tempers. They say if you fight one Hardaway, you get to fight them all. I’ve heard that I’ve got that trait from both the Hardaway and Bradford sides.
The women and men in my family are phenomenal. They’ve always been very involved in civil rights and the community – it was church and civic organizations. We went to so many Baptist student union conventions and so many church conventions, so many other conventions. I was also part of the Palace of Children, which fell under the Heroines of Jericho, a fraternal order. My father was a Mason, my paternal grandmother was a member of Heroines of Jericho, my maternal grandmother was a member of Eastern Star and Heroines of Jericho. My grandmother was the first elected Black election commissioner for Scott County. Both sides were really involved in their communities, and that’s something that I do now. I try to get more involved in organizations that can use my assistance.
My father had a degree in Civil Engineering from Alcorn State University. However, he never got hired as an engineer because of the color of his skin. He was a vet tech for a while because he was a vet tech in the military, and then he became a letter carrier because he had to support the family. He and my mom also owned a laundromat. My father was very, very industrious and super smart. Both my parents were. My mother was a registered nurse. My love of biology and chemistry came from my mother, and math and some of the other sciences came from my father. My mother also fed my desire to read. I’m an avid reader. We were proud nerds.
Mr. Ernest T. Smith was my high school chemistry teacher. He was my first Black science teacher, and he was just larger than life. He broke science down to be so understandable. He inspired me so much so that I majored in chemistry, pre-med and graduated with B.S. in chemistry from Alcorn State. They say teachers shape the world, and he did.
I wanted to be a neurosurgeon because at that time I had read Ben Carson’s book Gifted Hands. I didn’t become a neurosurgeon, obviously, but chemistry definitely opened my eyes to science and how it’s very underrepresented amongst minorities in most of the STEM fields. I would go to certain events and I would be the only piece of pepper in the room. But I stuck with it because I’m a Hardaway and a Bradford, and we don’t quit.
I got a full academic ride to Alcorn State University, which is also where my parents met. So I followed in their footsteps, as well as two of my uncles and aunts. It’s the oldest land grant Historically Black college or university (HBCU) in the United States. I always knew I was going to go to a HBCU because my high school was predominantly white, and I wouldn’t say I had a lot of positive experiences there. Little white boys thought they could just say the N-word and have no consequences, so I grew up fighting a lot. And then the microaggressions, just people saying stupid things. I didn’t want to go to four-year schools fighting it too. I needed some peace, so I purposely chose a HBCU because I wanted to be in a nurturing environment. While I was there, I was the vice president of the NAACP chapter, and was in some other organizations. I’m so glad I went that route. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
One of my faculty advisors was an instructor at ROTC. He told me, “Hardaway, you have great leadership style. You should come on over to ROTC.” I listened to his spiel, signed up that day, and ended up getting a two-year ROTC scholarship on top of my academic scholarship.
I got commissioned in 1992, graduated from Alcorn in May 1993, and joined the chemical corps in December 1993. I was a chemical officer until I became a Major, when I switched over to human resources, because I wanted a career field that would resonate with the civilian sector. I saw a whole different side of the military, particularly at the strategic level and how personnel affects that. I’ve led on a platoon leader side and company commander’s side. When I switched to HR, I led management divisions; I’ve been inspector general. I was stationed in Texas twice, Missouri, Oklahoma, Alabama, Korea twice, Virginia twice, DC, Germany, and sent on deployments to Kuwait and Afghanistan. I was in the military for 24 years and 15 days, officially retiring January 1, 2017.
When I was little, I read a story about a girl who loved cream puffs, so I went and found a recipe in my mom’s stack of cookbooks and attempted to make some. They fell flat because tablespoons and teaspoons don’t look all that different…but my brothers ate it anyway. It was that cream puff story that awakened a desire to bake.
I started out with desserts in my business because I was the person in the family that people came to for desserts. I mean, I learned how to do other foods. Obviously, it’s Mississippi and your reputation is built upon how well you cook or cannot cook. If you were asked to bring a dish to a meal, that means you were a pretty good cook; if you were asked to bring ice and soda, you’re not so good.
But I love desserts, and they make people happy. Joy and sorrow cannot reside at the same time when you eat a dessert. I love how it makes people feel when they eat something you created and the look of just pure joy on their faces. It’s a high you try to attain every time. So that’s what I wanted to do when I started Ms. Jo’s Petite Sweets: create dessert masterpieces and cakes and pies and just beautiful celebration things.
I produce on a small scale, which I think sets me apart too. I believe in being unique. I don’t do everything the same way. I look at food as a way of changing the narrative, like how can we make this better? Who says we have to do it this way all the time? I like to shake recipes up whether it’s savory or sweet. I think that gives me a competitive edge because I don’t want you to come to my place and say, oh, this is just like the dessert from so and so. I want you to come there because I’m different.
Thanks to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill – Thank you, President Obama – I was able to afford pastry school. I retired January 1st and started pastry school at L’Academie de Cuisine is in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on January 3rd. As a former chemistry major, pastry school made so much sense to me because a recipe is like a reaction. You have different elements, and you have a desired outcome. The nerd in me loves looking at recipes and figuring out how to adjust. Mr. Smith would say that I’m using my chemistry degree for my business and he would probably be very happy.
I am so glad I decided to go the route of pastry school because it’s amazing what you don’t know. I truly, truly would not be where I am without it, having no formal training otherwise. Being from Mississippi and having a farm to table background plus this formal training really solidified my culinary skills.
When I was researching businesses, one thing that kept surfacing was, “Don’t go into brick and mortar off the bat. Get a commercial kitchen space to see if you can prove the concept.” I’m so glad I did that at Frontier Kitchen; they were a great incubator. We were just doing desserts until I had a corporate client ask me, “Oh, do you do heavy hors d’oeuvres?” I do now, so we do catering, which led to Ms. Jo’s Petite Eats. Before the pandemic, we had moved our operations from Frontier Kitchen to a kitchen in western Alexandria, and now we opened our first brick and mortar in June 2022: Mrs. Jo’s Petite Eats Patisserie and Café in McLean, Virginia, at the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Corporate Headquarters Building. It’s southern cuisine with a French flair.
My niece, Hannah, pointed out that grandma was married to granddaddy, so she should be “Mrs.” That weighed on my mind a lot because representation matters, so when I got this new venture, I said, OK, this is the time to do that. And if I’m going to name this business after my mom, then let’s pull out all the things that she was famous for, like Mrs. Jo’s jam, jellies, and relishes. She used to sew, so we’re also going to do Mrs. Jo’s kitchen apparel. The long-term goal is to look at the other revenue lines. Depending on how those go, we may do Hannibal’s dog treats. I’m building that empire.
During COVID, I had to pivot to survive. I started offering dinner packages just to stay alive because I lost nine corporate events between March-June 2020. And that year was going to be a banner year; I was projected to knock it out of the box. I had teamed up with this lobbying group on the Hill as their preferred caterer. It was so many things that were coming into play, but then COVID happened. Money stopped coming in. I got very concerned, and had to lay off my staff because there’s no money. Thank God for my retirement, but it got really depressing. I almost gave up, but I was able to stay with it.
Then things started coming in, a job here, a job there, and I ended up making more than I did the previous year. Had I quit, had my social media person not been posting because I was still doing things, a casting agent from Fox’s Crime Scene Kitchen never would have seen a post that said, “Veteran Baker.” She looked my stuff up and called me in March 2021. Never, ever could I have imagined that I, this country girl from Mississippi, would be on a national television show, meeting stars I’ve only seen on TV. It was an event of a lifetime. I have so much more respect for that world because it was a grind, but a great experience. And now it gives me the moniker “celebrity chef.” That’s why you can’t quit. You’ve got to keep working. You never know who’s looking at you.
The same day I got the call from the casting agent, I got a call from a mentor. She asked if I would be interested in taking over the PenFed Corporate Headquarters Cafe space. She said, “We’re going to send out the RFP, so we’re calling see if you’re interested.” There was no national announcement for this, but because someone knew me and knew I was in this space, they reached out to me. It’s not who I know, it’s who knows me. People see me grinding and they reach out to me for these opportunities. But I almost self-selected myself out because I thought I was too small. I didn’t have the capital that’s required. But when I went to see the space, I fell in love with it. I saw the greatness in that location and was able to relay that into my proposal and pitch.
I went to the PenFed pitch and spoke from the heart. When they called me and told me I won it, they said it was the first time they ever had a unanimous decision. They said, “Erinn’s awesome! She loves food.” I was able to display that. Ironically, the guy that was asking me the most questions was the one that was my biggest advocate. I want those questions. I don’t want someone to be a yes person to me. Ask me those hard questions because I can get better in this.
I’ve learned that if you’re not in the space for people to meet you, to see you and hear about your story, they can’t help you. You’ve got to go to these functions when you don’t feel like going to them. Meeting people and getting your name out there. It’s not who you, know it’s who knows you.
Being an African American woman, people tend to overlook you and dismiss your opinions. They make assumptions about you. I grew up playing classical piano, but there are people that look at you and don’t understand how you can play or how you know about these different composers. Even in the military people make assumptions. They see you before they see your rank and assume you’re a non-commissioned officer, and not an officer.
If I was in a STEM field or something else that didn’t have a lot of representation, I’d probably face a lot more things. Not to be facetious but because I’m a Black woman in food, I don’t get asked, why am I here? I’m not saying everybody expects Black women to cook, but that’s not a far leap. But because I’m a Black woman in culinary, I’m considered an expert. I think I’m also semi-protected because I’m a veteran. People see I’m Black but I’m also a veteran so that kind of erases that for them.
People make assumptions before they meet me. My first name is Erinn, and I know they think I’m white. I mean, I laugh because it’s funny, but there are a lot of Black Erinns out there. I’ve met some white Felicias, so you just can’t go by people’s names anymore. And then sometimes people don’t think you’re going to be good at certain things. But then they realize, well, she’s still there and she’s still grinding. She’s still doing this.
I grew up fighting. In The Color Purple, Oprah has a scene where she says, “All my life, I had to fight…[I] ain’t safe.” I resonate with that so much. You just get exhausted fighting. You get sick and tired of being sick and tired. But it’s life and you’re going to deal with it and move on. I’ve learned that you have to be your biggest advocate. You want to be heard, speak up. You want to be seen, stand up. You’re not going to shut down and quit. No, that’s not in my DNA.
I give credit to my mother for a lot of that. I would say she’s the original feminist. She grew up in a time where the male members of your family had to give you permission to do things or to buy things. After listening to my mother talk about her experiences, I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to be my own woman. My mom instilled a lot of those ideas into us…and my father as well, because my parents didn’t believe in gender-specific chores. My mother taught my brothers how to cook because she considered it a life skill. And my father taught us how to do things around the house, and change a tire, change oil. He wanted his girls to be self-sufficient.
On the flip side, my biggest weakness is not delegating. I try to do everything myself. But growing up in the in the military and being a woman of color, if you asked for assistance, you were considered weak. I’m getting out of that slowly. Sometimes you give up personal relationships because it’s a lot to manage the level of expectations of your family or friends. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by people that understand. I’m blessed that my siblings are my biggest cheerleaders. In fact, my baby sister is moving to DC to make sure that I’m OK with the business. So that’s love. And at the grand opening there was a whole church blessing. I love Fort Foote Baptist Church. They are also a huge support.
There’s also a group of friends I met through various veteran-support programs that we call the Boss Ladies. We all get together about once a month and just talk over dinner. It’s just so comforting to realize there are other people going through the same thing. I appreciate their advice and how they look at things, and I’m telling you those ladies, they have been phenomenal. We all support each other. When you become a business owner, you get so tired of having to explain things to people that don’t understand. But with my friends, they help you find solutions. Outside of my family and my close friends, my Boss Ladies are my greatest support team.
I would say one of the biggest barriers I have experienced is access to capital. The average retail space can go into $20,000/month. And that’s just to open your door. That’s not even build out. It’s more than first month, last month rent, it’s a lot of stuff up front. Who has that on top of money for the business?
When I decided to open the business, I stopped shopping for myself. Everything I bought from then on was for the business. Because if you don’t sacrifice for your business, no one else will. You have to have the buy in. I bought all my small equipment, my mixers and pans, out of pocket, even before I started making revenue. It’s ALL about the business. So you sacrifice time, you give up doing things for you, like shopping and trips around the world.
When I’m talking about barriers, I’m talking about things that are more external. There are things that you have to do as a person. You’ve got to do your part, too. If you say you’re going to be a business owner then you’ve got to start researching, you’ve got to see what’s out there. You make that your focus and try to learn as much as you can. I took advantage of all the military and veteran programs. I did Boots to Business through the SBA. I did the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans through Cornell University. I did the Dog Tag Fellowship Program. I did all those programs and they helped shape how I do business. There are so many other skills that you must have.
You can be a great cook, but if you don’t understand the business of the business, you will fail. I learned how to do accounting and read finance sheets and reports. I learned how to read contracts, understand sales. I’m able to discuss pro forma. I’m able to read plans, to talk that knowledge.
People think being a business owner is easy, and it’s not. Being an entrepreneur is hard. Being a small business owner is the hardest job you will love. Whatever your core business is, yeah, you’ve got that piece down. It’s everything else around it that has to support it. People want to invest in most businesses, but if you can’t talk the talk…it all comes full circle. Being able to talk the business side of business means a lot.
To me, success does not necessarily relate to the outcome. I think success for me has been in the journey and success in not quitting. Success is handling whatever’s thrown your way and handling it with grace and dignity. I believe whatever happens to you, you have to learn something from it, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, and how you can do better next time. I’m so proud that I didn’t give up. I felt like giving up, oh, but I did. But that is what I’m most proud of: I’m still here.
I realize that I can’t do everything and sometimes I just don’t do anything. You don’t have to plan every minute of your life. If there’s a day I’m not cooking, my dog Hannibal and I just chill. I don’t plan anything in particular. I try to enjoy the moment, try to be more present. I get a pedicure, drink some wine every now and then, read a book, or go to a bookstore. That is nirvana for me. I turn my cell phone off. I go to bed earlier. I put my dog in his little room, turn the Apple TV on, and I just watch something. I relax. I do something for myself.
I’ll also say my faith has helped me realize so much. I’m not going to worry, because if I’m going to worry, I’m not going to pray. So I pray, I don’t worry, and I give it to God because I tell you, He surprises me on a daily basis. I look back over my life and I think about the things I prayed for. God’s like, “Girl, you make me laugh. I have so much better for you.” I look at Crime Scene Kitchen, look at this PenFed cafe, and the things that came together for them to happen.
People ask me, “Erinn, how do you do it?” You have to have faith. My faith is in God. Because on those days that I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and my thoughts give me pause, my faith has been the number one thing that has gotten me through. God has never failed me. When the hardest thing in my life was losing my mom, and I didn’t see how I was going to make it, God gave me the idea of naming the business after her. That’s how I grieved. Every time I felt like quitting, He arranged things in my favor. I have faith, because that’s the only thing that has gotten me this far: my faith, and God’s grace and mercy. I’m a walking miracle.