TUSAYAN, Ariz. — For nearly 50 years, ClayAnn Cook’s career trajectory has been defined by creativity, customer engagement, and a commitment to growth.
Cook started working at Diamond’s department store, today known as Dillard’s, in Flagstaff when she was 15 years old. Working her way up, Cook was a supervisor by age 19. Since then, she has worked her way through a variety of management roles at retail chains, hotels, and now Big E’s restaurant.
After working as a retail chain manager in Paradise Valley and Scottsdale, ClayAnn found herself in Page, with a dilemma about what to do next — there are no department stores to manage in Page.
“We had an opportunity to move to Page, because my husband was a store director for Bashas,’” she said. “But there were no department stores for me to manage. There wasn’t even a Wal-Mart in Page when we moved there in 1988.”
With no venues to put her management experience to work, Cook used the opportunity to change course, going to work as the front desk supervisor for the Wahweap Marina and Resort at Lake Powell.
“It was the first time I had ever worked in a hotel in my life,” she explained. “I had no experience. But I knew how to sell and I knew how to take care of people, so it just wasn’t hard.”
Six months after stepping into her role as front desk supervisor, ClayAnn became the hotel manager. A year after that, she was promoted to operations manager, and another year later, she was the general manager of the entire property.
In 2001, Cook left Wahweap and Page to do consulting work for Forever Resorts, which took her to Big Bend National Park in southern Texas. She also started Black Canyon River Adventures, which took rafters down river from the base of the Hoover Dam to Willow Beach, Arizona.
A meeting with a friend who worked for Delaware North brought her back to the Grand Canyon area — in 2002, Cook became the general manager for the Grand Hotel. After a year, Cook decided to go back to her permanent home in Page, where her husband still lived.
Before long, another opportunity came knocking at Cook’s door — a good friend, Brenda Halvorson, suggested that she come back to Tusayan and work for her father, Elling Halvorson.
“At first I just said ‘no,’” Cook said. “I was back home and I was going to stay in Page for awhile.”
Eventually, however, Cook met with Elling Halvorson and came on board, managing all the retail stores for Canyon Flight Trading Company.
“I started out with four stores, and we went to seven,” she said. “I was helping build buildings around the Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City areas.”
While working for Halvorson, Cook oversaw the evolution of the building she currently calls hers: The Big E Steakhouse and Saloon.
What began as the Western Discovery Museum housing fine arts from the Southwest has become one of Tusayan’s largest and most successful restaurants, a process that Cook had a hand in from beginning to end. Every part of the building’s design has ClayAnn’s vision written all over it — she helped design it, build it and paint it, leading her to joke with Halvorson about the ownership of the building.
It was a building process that took several years to achieve, from its inception as a dinner theater, to an all-night entertainment venue, to its current iteration as simply a great restaurant that shows a silent movie of the Grand Canyon while guests enjoy their meals with friends and family.
It’s a process that guides Cook as she continues to manage the property.
“You have to recognize, when you create something, maybe your ideas, your thoughts, just aren’t right,” she said. “It’s an evolution. My mantra has always been ‘make your mistakes as fast as you can.’ Just because you made a decision, if it doesn’t work out the way you planned, don’t be afraid to make another one. Don’t overthink and fall into that lack of momentum. Failure is a part of learning and a part of growing.”
Growth is something that Cook has experienced throughout her career, no matter what project or property she’s been a part of. It’s her job, she explained, to give her staff members an environment in which they can perform their jobs successfully and grow.
Along with managing the restaurant, Cook is an involved member of the small but diverse community. She has served as president of the Grand Canyon Rotary and Chamber of Commerce, and she currently sits on the Tusayan planning and zoning committee. She is also a member of the election board. Helping others, such as the Grand Canyon School, which performs all music and theater productions on the Big E stage, is essential.
“It’s so important to participate and be involved,” she said. “When you live in a community like Grand Canyon, you have to give back. You have to be supportive, and you need to help take care of all the other people in the community.”
It’s been hard work, long hours and living away from her family, but Cook, 64, shows no signs of slowing down. She’s a fixture at Big E’s every day, bussing tables, greeting guests, and surprisingly, washing the dishes.
“It gives such a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “To start with this pile of dirty dishes and at the end, have a pile of clean dishes. It’s a concrete accomplishment and it feels good.”
That is the essence of Big E’s Steakhouse & Saloon — at the end of the day, for Cook and her staff, it’s all about an evolving accomplishment.