Founding Partner, President & CEO of Ascend Hospitality Group By Marguerite Cleveland | photo by In Gear Media
Elaina Morris is a bundle of energy as she juggles roles as a CEO, single mother, and supporter of her local community. Her leadership skills are legendary, leading to success in business as the cofounder and CEO of Ascend Hospitality Group (AHG), a black and female-led locally owned business. Lainey, as she is called by friends, is generous with her time and leadership skills, serving as a trustee to several non-compensated, nonprofit boards such as Rainier Athletes, Washington Hospitality Association Education Foundation, and Samena Club. She is also a longtime supporter of the various Pierce County Communities in Schools chapters. She is a longtime member and now trustee of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.
Ascend Hospitality Group’s newest endeavor is Stanford’s Steak restaurant in Tacoma, located at the site of the former Pacific Grill. Locals who remember the old restaurant will love the contemporary steakhouse’s revamp of the historic space. Morris had a very hands-on approach to the new look, which manages to ditch the stuffy, starched white tablecloths for a more casual vibe while still remaining elegant—a very good fit for the Tacoma dining scene.
Q. Can you share with our readers how your love of hospitality and entertaining influences decisions at your restaurant? A. Personally, I value gathering—I love entertaining groups and dining out. I am my best customer, and I’m at home in the hospitality industry. One of my foundational values is making sure people in my orbit feel well cared for, and that is also why the feeling that “You Matter” is a core value of my company. You Matter isn’t just a phrase, it’s a key tenant to the way we aspire to deliver service daily to our guests. As the great Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Q. What were the challenges with becoming the new owners of an iconic brand like Stanford’s? A. I think the question really is, “What were the challenges with becoming the new owners of an iconic brand like Stanford’s, rescuing them from a bankruptcy, four months before a global pandemic!” But seriously, I love how welcoming Stanford’s is and how it has become a daily part of the lives of so many families in both Oregon and Washington.
Stanford’s is important to the communities it has served since the inception of the brand in 1990. The Stanford’s brand is iconic and has played an important role in the lives of many Pacific Northwesterners, which is why I chose the historic Waddell Building, in the heart of downtown Tacoma, to launch its evolution. The responsibility of becoming the owner of a brand like this is extensive, but not overwhelming. The brand needed the one thing I know how to give—a big hug—which came in the form of investment in its people and infrastructure. We are repositioning and evolving the Stanford’s brand in this location as Stanford’s Steak, a contemporary steakhouse and lounge, so that it remains inviting to its raving loyal guests but also attracts the generations of guests to come.
Q. Ascend Hospitality Group is a black and female-led locally owned business. What are the challenges in this position, especially when so many see you as a role model? A. All businesses are facing great challenges right now—this pandemic has not been selective, although certain industries such as hospitality and health care have been devastated. I am sure I feel the same challenges as most other business owners and leaders, although I continue to feel great responsibility to the communities and people I represent and serve as a minority and female leader, particularly as a single mom. When I think about underrepresented groups in leadership and the innate challenge presented to us, the unfortunate fact is, the stakes are as high as our counterparts, but there is farther to fall, the spotlight is brighter, and scrutiny often greater. Through mentorship, public service, education, and leading by example, I’m hoping to narrow the gap for those who will be in my position in the future.
Q. Team building is an important part of your business model as well as "Service Matters." Can you share how these core values affect the guest experience when visiting one of your restaurants? A. During the initial tenure of my hospitality career, I had the honor of mentorship from the great “Famous” Dave Anderson, founder of Famous Dave’s BBQ. One of the things Dave shared with me is what he believed to be the key to great hospitality: “Hospitality is about people, you have to make sure you take care of your people because when they feel good, they will take care of your guests.” Dave always referred to this as “serving a guest or serving someone who is”!
Here at Ascend HG, we feel it is important to elevate the communities we serve, not just by nourishing our patrons with excellent food, but through the good work we do in the communities we serve. Service to our communities and each other is the AHG difference—and guests can feel it.