Rita Gilligan MBE spoke to Adam Shaw about life as the face of the Hard Rock Café
There’s something quite exciting about meeting somebody famous. Seeing them in the flesh rather than on the telly or in a magazine can invoke a certain amount of giddiness or disbelief.
It doesn’t matter whether they’re going into a five-star hotel or buying a leg of lamb, you are compelled to react in some way.
It might involve sharing that moment with friends and family or trying to grab an autograph or, more likely in this day and age, a quick selfie. Yet for one woman from Galway, though this sensation will never leave her, it has become the norm.
Rita Gilligan was one of the first employees at the Hard Rock Café in London, and 45 years later, she’s still at the company. During that time she’s travelled the world as a brand ambassador and has met hundreds of celebrities. But, as nice as this has been, it was never about the fame and the glamour, the stars and guitars.
For Rita, it was all about being the best she, and Hard Rock, could be.
“Great staff and great service are the secrets to good business and this is something we’ve always stood by,” she said. “In the beginning it was sink or swim and, I tell you, we swam because we believed in ourselves and were committed to a good service.”
She explained how some things would change, appreciating that it was important to move with the times, but that her own principles would remain constant.
“I wanted people to know about our history and so I’d made sure that we’d kept things how they were in the original London Hard Rock,” she said. “People who came to my table, I would make sure that I was going to give them all I could. I was desperate for them to come back next time and enjoy it just as much.
“I’d find out what sort of things they liked, what they were after in London and then I’d double up as a tour guide or tell them where to get the best Doc Martens.
“Too many times you go to buy something and it’s like ‘bang, money, gone’. I never wanted it to be like that if I was involved.”
This attitude, a constant striving for excellent customer interaction, helped land Rita the job in the first place. That and a little bit of flat-out bravado. Aged 29, after years in fine dining, she was feeling a little homesick when she came across an advert in The London Evening Standard looking for waitresses at a new restaurant. The advert was looking for people a bit older but she went along anyway to try her hand at the fledgling bar.
“I turned up and there was a young man in jeans and a t-shirt outside. He had long hair and asked me in an American accent if he could help,” she explained. “It turned out to be Peter Morton and he told me he owned the place. It was already so glamorous – I’d never heard an American accent other than on the TV.
“He told me I was too young to work there but I replied ‘I’m the best you’re going to get, so you better take me’.”
Morton laughed, Rita got the job and the rest, as they say, is history. She’s helped Bob Geldof at Live 8, chatted with Liza Minnelli and Michael Jackson, described Freddy Mercury as a “great lad” and counts Paul McCartney as a friend. She even stood up to Donald Trump after he refused to shake her hand and said he was warm, welcoming and “not actually the bad guy everyone says he is”.
These famous acquaintances haven’t gone to her head, however, and she is very devoted to her roots back in Ireland.
She recalled how she would entertain her tables with tales of being taught by nuns and quipped that regular guests would ask her if it was still raining in Galway each time they visited. Her new role at the company allows her time to pop home whenever she wishes and even though she now has “more friends on the inside of the cemetery than the outside”, she has a deep love for Galway, Ireland and its people.
“An Irish passport is like a ticket to heaven – we’ve all get to get in, haven’t we? I mean, how could we not, greatest country in the world,” she said. “We’ve got the best fish shops, the best service and I think that, no matter where you go in the world, there’s nowhere like Ireland.
“When people used to come into the Hard Rock, they’d sit with me and, by the next day, they’d booked tickets to Dublin.”
She explained that she regularly thinks about quitting but, the next thing she knows, she’s jetting off somewhere new. It’s a relationship which has been forged over several decades and one that won’t come to an end easily. The Hard Rock Café has given so much to Rita, she just hopes that she has given all she can in return.
The memoir The Rock and Roll Waitress by Rita Gilligan MBE is available at www.amazon.co.uk