The cornerstone of Hard Rock Cafe is its staff, and the most enduring of them all has to be Rita Gilligan. Her Gaelic charm and ever-smiling face is the epitome of the family experience that Hard Rock aims for in all of its restaurants. And Rita should know- she's been working at the original Hard Rock Cafe in London since DAY ONE – June 14, 1971 – only stopping to give birth to her daughter, Tara!
Born in 1941 in Galway, Ireland into a strict Catholic family, Rita never dreamed that she would spend more than half of her life serving rock stars and celebrities at a restaurant. Her training as a silver-service waitress at the world-renowned Great Southern Hotel in Galway turned out to be good preparation for her move to London in 1960. There she worked at various hip establishments, including The Egg and I on the Haymarket, The Swiss Patisserie on Finchley Road and the Victoria Sporting Club.
An advertisement in the Evening Standard looking for "matronly" waitresses, ages 30 to 55 with strong personalities, brought her to Hard Rock Cafe London for an interview. Hard Rock’s co-founder, Peter Morton, was so impressed with Rita's wit and confidence, ("I'm the best you're gonna get, so you'd better take me!"), he asked her to start right then and there. She soon became a firm favourite with the stars that had started to hang out at Hard Rock Cafe London, and to this day, she still wears an original uniform of a calf-length dress, white nurse shoes and a white hat fashioned from a crisp white napkin.
Rita also holds the honor of being the first Hard Rock waitress in the world to wear the now-famous collectible pins. She was presented with the first pin, made back in 1972, and now has a collection of more than 600 Hard Rock pins from around the world. Each time she wears the uniform she chooses a different selection of pins, and it takes her one hour to put them on – but only 20 minutes to remove them at the end of her shift.
On April 28, 1998, Rita made a special addition to her pin collection – an honorary MBE (Member of the British Empire) from her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Bestowed in front of 150 family members, friends and colleagues at a champagne reception in her honor, the award was presented by Culture Secretary Chris Smith in recognition of her services to tourism in Britain.
Rita, who has been dubbed "Lovely Rita" after The Beatles track, took on the role of "Goodwill Ambassador" for the Hard Rock in 1988. In this role, she travels to Hard Rock Cafes throughout the world training new members of the staff and passing on her knowledge of the "Love All, Serve All" ethos that can only come from working with an establishment for over 40 years.
Throughout the years, she has served them all – from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, from Take That to Girls Aloud – but she has had a few surprises of her own. She has danced with Ronnie Wood, been serenaded by Noel Gallagher, been kissed by George Michael, had her name in lights at Piccadilly Circus, London and has even brought the traffic on Broadway NY to a standstill. She also receives fan mail!
Today, Rita makes appearances at Hard Rock Cafes and special events all over the world, including Hard Rock Cafe Grand Openings. She was also a special guest at Live 8 courtesy of her friend Sir Bob, where she could be seen hanging out backstage with all of the artists.
“I've had lots of offers over the years, but I've never been tempted to leave," said Rita. "I may not be as fast as the young ones, but I'm a good waitress, and I make sure that every meal I serve is an experience the guests will never forget."
Some of the other stars served by Rita include: Abba, Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali, Lauren Bacall, Tony Bennett, Chuck Berry, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Jon Bon Jovi, Jackie Collins, Joan Collins, Phil Collins, Sir Bob Geldof, Dustin Hoffman, Rock Hudson, Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, Sir Elton John, Tom Jones, Nicole Kidman, Cyndi Lauper, John Lennon, Lord David Linley, Rob Lowe, Paul McCartney, John McEnroe, Liza Minelli, Martina Navratilova, Jack Nicholson, Freddie Mercury, Paul Newman, Tatum O'Neal, Princesses Beatrice and Eugene, Prince Albert of Monaco, Nancy Sinatra, Steven Spielberg, Sting, Patrick Swayze, Pete Townshend, Lord Lloyd Webber, Ronnie Wood….
But in true Hard Rock fashion, Rita explains, "It's not the stars and the guitars that make the job so enjoyable. I try to make every customer who comes to the Hard Rock feel like a star- whether they are having a cup of coffee or a bottle of champagne."