If you’re a member of the Hard Rock family, you’ve probably heard of the name, Rita Gilligan. And that comes as no surprise; Rita’s a true Hard Rock legend – she was among the first waitresses ever hired in the very first Hard Rock Café, which opened in 1971 in London. And although she’s officially retired from serving up delicious eats, she’s been representing Hard Rock as a beloved brand ambassador ever since. She’s even recognized by Queen Elizabeth II herself, having been awarded the distinguished M.B.E, the Member of the British Empire award, for her years of outstanding service to the tourism industry. We had a chance to sit down with Rita and chat about how she spreads the spirit on rock ‘n’ roll.
- You have become such an incredible icon in the Hard Rock brand – what’s your version of the story behind how it all began?
Rita: It was 1971 and there was an ad out in the paper looking for people for the first Hard Rock Café in London. I went around to a lot of my friends, because it was very funny, they were looking for older people, which was very, very strange; normally it’s young kids. But they wanted women only, no waiters – age 30, 40, 50 or older. I went around to everyone’s doors – it was funny because then, nobody had phones, no landlines or anything. So I went around knocking on all the doors of my friends, and I said, “look – they’re looking for us!” And they said, “Rita, why don’t you go?” So I went down to the Hard Rock after finding it, and it was like a builders’ yard. And I thought, “I came from five-star dining into a builders’ yard!” There was a guy who looked very much like Elliot Gould, the actor, and the other guy with long reddish hair, piercing blue eyes and wearing loads of crucifixes, and that was Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton, the founders. They had American accents, which I had never heard before.
So Isaac asked me about myself, and I told him I had 17 years of fine dining experience, and I was the best – one of the best. And he asked me how old I was – now he was 22 years old at the time. I said I was 32; I was 29 but I lied about my age. He said, “Ms. Rita, you’re great, but you’re a bit young.” So I said to him, “listen, I’m the best you’re going to get! You better take me.” So he sat back in his chair, put his hands up, gave me a high-five, and that’s how I started.
- Throughout your time as an ambassador, how have you seen the Hard Rock brand evolve over the years?
Rita: In 1982, in the early days it was very much rock ‘n’ roll. In 1982, Peter Morton decided to sell his share of the company, but they kept the brand name, and he moved to Los Angeles. So he opened the second Hard Rock in the world.
We’ve given the people, from day one, value for money, we give them spirit. We give them rock ‘n’ roll. We gave them everything, and that’s what they needed. When the first Hard Rock opened in 1971, London was in a depression. The people needed smiles on their faces, and then the Hard Rock arrived and you know what? We put the smiles back on people’s faces. We got them going again because we had something to offer that no one else in the world had to offer. We had spirit, rock ‘n’ roll, great food, and we had charity work. We’re giving back as well. And that’s from day one, and I know that, because I’ve been there since day one.
These two young American boys, 22 years of age, opened up the Hard Rock, and it all worked because of the great staff. The staff are the success of any great business in the world. And that’s why from day one, with 46 people, we opened our doors and it was sink or swim, and we swam, and we’re still swimming today!
And I always say, whether you walk into Hard Rock for a day, a month, a year or five years, you know what? Give it your best shot. Because I want people to walk out the door with something in their hearts. I wanted every guest that I served to leave with a memory.
Today, there are many Hard Rocks. Back then it was like a novelty. Today we’re not a novelty, so we have to give something back. We have to make guests feel welcome, like they’re coming into your house.
Life changes most things and people too, but you know what? We’re still Hard Rock – ‘All is One.’ ‘Love All – Serve All’.
- What have been your most memorable moments as a member of the Hard Rock family?
Rita: Whenever I am visiting, like here I am in Orlando – even though I’m 74 years of age, nearly 75, I feel like I’m 20 years younger. I’m full of joy; I love meeting the people. The most important thing is meeting the people and the staff, for me. The staff are the most important; they’re the success of the business – whether they’re washing up the dishes in the kitchen, or they’re Carlton Hudson, the managing director. It doesn’t matter, we all play a part in keeping those doors open. Everyone plays their part. That’s why the motto is ‘All Is One.’ Nothing rocks unless we all rock as a team.
We also do a lot of charity work. Recently, I went to Johannesburg, South Africa and visited Nelson Mandela’s hospital for mothers and babies. There were so many sick babies, and their mothers doing their best to keep them warm, and they didn’t even have beds or chairs to sit on. But within a few hours, we got 100 beds and 100 chairs delivered. That’s what Hard Rock does.