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The Caterer Interview – Rita Gilligan, Industry Icon

05 August 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – Rita Gilligan, Industry Icon

As the Hard Rock Café celebrates its 40th year in business, Rosalind Mullen meets its "cultural attaché" Rita Gilligan, who started as a waitress on day one and celebrated her 70th birthday this summer

It's hard to believe that the Hard Rock Café launched classic American dining in London 40 years ago. Yes, at the time the press were saying "you can't sell burgers to a Brit", but we proved them wrong. The first Hard Rock was opened in a former Rolls-Royce showroom here in Hyde Park, London, on 14 June 1971 by Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett. It started off with one café and 42 staff and there are now 133 cafés in 51 countries and more than 20,000 staff. In fact, the company now also has 15 hotel/casinos and runs events such as the annual Hard Rock Calling music festival in Hyde Park.

How did Hard Rock London celebrate its birthday? We offered the original menu at original prices - so 50p for a burger and 80p for BBQ chicken and classic hot fudge sundae for 40p. I was there all day, telling customers my anecdotes.

How did you get the job all those years ago? My husband saw an advert in the Evening Standard for matronly waitresses aged 30-55 with strong personalities. I was 29 years old, but I lied and said I was 32. I was interviewed by one of the founders, Peter. He was only in his early 20s, but he told me I was too young. I said "I'm the best you're gonna get, so you'd better take me".

From the first day I thought the place was crazy - I'd come from a silver service background, having trained at the Great Southern hotel in Galway. Most of the waitresses were in their 50s and we used a pen and paper to take orders for the first 17 years. In fact, the waitresses were usually puffing on a cigarette as they took an order.

So Hard Rock heralded a more relaxed restaurant concept… It was amazing who was coming in. We had the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Tom Jones… I knew them all. It was a fun place to work. It was like medicine coming in here and I felt like I was part of something new.

Peter and Isaac used to ask me things about me. No manager had asked about me before. But our motto is Love all; Serve all. We changed the old-fashioned way. The staff had a voice. We also had shares as we all invested £200 in the 1980s - which was a lot of money back then. When I'm in London I always feel that I own a little bit of the place. It incentivised us. It was classless, too. We served white-collar workers and blue-collar workers together.

Describe what your role is as cultural attaché. I remember on 13 June 1996 at a minute to 12 they called me in and asked me if I would be the cultural attaché. Imagine that. Even so, my day started with the tables and I still work them on the first Thursday of the month if I'm in town.

I've opened most of the Hard Rocks around the world. I do the staff orientation. The most recent opening was in Florence in June. It's beautiful; in a converted cinema. I noticed that a lot of the people having coffee were older and probably remembered the cinema. I recognised that people my age don't like change - they don't want to see a Hard Rock coming in.

I told the staff to talk to them, ask them what it used to be like, learn from them and bring it to the attention of management. Always look after the locals, so if they want coffee and cake, serve it. When it's quiet in winter, they're the ones who you'll rely on for business.

The company always claims the cornerstone of the business is its staff. How true is this? It's the staff who made Hard Rock what it is. When I give my presentation to the new staff, I always bring the back-of-house team on to the stage in front of the CEO - I say "you're just as important as anyone else in this room". That's what has kept this place going - it came from Isaac.

There is also great training at Hard Rock and we have a policy of promoting from within. For instance, Calum MacPherson, who started as my bus boy 23 years ago when he was 19, is now vice-president of operations Europe. By 1995 he had become general manager of the flagship café in London and by 1999 he was running the Orlando restaurant, Hard Rock's biggest, with 400 staff.

You were given an honorary MBE in 1998 for your services to tourism in Britain. What do you think of hospitality today? I'm very critical of service today. Customers have more money nowadays and they won't come back if they get bad service. There's lots more food choice in restaurants nowadays, though. That's good.

What's the secret of your service style? I've always felt that the customers are the audience and I'm the star. You have to enjoy your job.

What I don't like is the up-selling in restaurants today. I'm a believer in judging what your customer needs. I'm 70 and I don't want all the talk - that's for America. I'm honest with the customer. I don't up-sell - I want them to return and I want the brand to go forward. I never look at what a customer is spending, either. I treat them the same whether they're buying Champagne or a coffee. I don't think waiting staff should be eyeing up who would give the better tip.

I also believe in helping people - if they're tourists, I chat to them about what they're doing during their stay and I try to give them tips and information. For instance, if we have young backpackers in I'll suggest they get an Oyster card for a week because it's cheaper. And if they're going on to Edinburgh or Paris or wherever, I'll point out that we have a Hard Rock there, as well. It's important to learn from your diners, too, and to find out what their views are.

Do you have a strong opinion about service charges? I don't like seeing the service on a bill. At Hard Rock it's optional, but I think it should be up to the public. I treat customers as if they were guests in my home. If you give good service you'll get it back.

I remember years ago a man with a bad leg came into the restaurant. Our policy is to seat single people at the bar, but I decided to sit him at a more comfortable table. He had a heavy bag and when he finished, I offered to carry it and walk him down the road to his hotel. Then I arranged for the concierge there to go down to Boots to get him some drugs that he needed.

A few years later, I was in the Hard Rock in San Francisco and I bumped into him. He insisted on taking me to lunch. He picked me up in a limo and took me to a place up in the Heights - turned out he owned it or something.

I always praise anyone who goes above and beyond for me. For instance, there was an assistant in M&S in Galway who was more than helpful so I asked to see the manager and told him how good his service was.

The company prides itself on being philanthropic - could you give us some examples? Yes, it started out like that. Back in the early days I remember I asked Peter and Isaac if I could give a take-away burger - we were the first to do take-away - to a homeless lady outside. They said yes and gave me £3 to give to her, too. It was a lot in those days when we were working for a £1 a day. Today, the company raises millions for lots of charities from Bombay Teen Challenge to Hard Rock's Imagine there's no Hunger campaign.

Give us two of your best memories. Bob Geldof inviting me backstage for the Live8 concert… little Beatrice and Eugenie coming in for their birthday treats with Fergie…

hard rock cafe's foundations

Hard Rock Cafe 1973 (rex)
Hard Rock Cafe 1973 (rex)

â- 1982 - global expansion begins as the pair agree to develop their own Hard Rock Cafés

â- Morton opens in the USA - LA, San Francisco, Houston and Chicago

â- Tigrett opens in locations such as New York, Berlin and Paris and sells interest to Mecca

â- 1990 - Rank acquires Mecca and continues expansion

â- 1995 - the first hotel and casino opened in Las Vegas

â- 1996 - Rank acquires Hard Rock America from Morton and consolidates brand

â- 1999 - the first 3,000-capacity concert venue, Hard Rock Live, opened in Orlando (subsequently joined by venues in Fort Lauderdale, Biloxi and Las Vegas)

â- 2007 - Seminole Tribe of Florida acquired Hard Rock International and other interests for $965m.

â- The privately owned company now owns or franchises 171 venues in 51 countries, including 134 cafés and 15 hotels/casinos

â- Core businesses also include Hard Rock memorabilia, Hard Rock merchandise, Hard Rock Live and HardRock.com

â- Hotels are scheduled to open in Panama in 2012, and in Hungary, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2013

â- The cafés see some 77 million customers a year and have more than 73,000 pieces of rock memorabilia overseen by full-time dedicated staff

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