Five minutes with: Rita Gilligan, Hard Rock Cafe's oldest employee

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Rita Gilligan, cultural attaché, Hard Rock Cafe.

Rita Gilligan, cultural attaché, Hard Rock Cafe.

How did you come to join the very first Hard Rock Cafe back in 1971?

I was in the back garden of my house in London with my husband where he was reading the London Evening Standard and he showed me an advert and said: “They are looking for people like you”. I was 29 at the time and the advert said: “Older women wanted — late 30s, 40s and 50s”. So I met Hard Rock co-founder Peter Morton and he asked me about myself and how old I was — I was 29 at the time, but I said I was 32 because they wanted women in their late 30s. So he said I was great but a little bit too young and I wasn’t going to take that so I said: “I’m the best you’re going to get so you better take me”.

The Hard Rock Cafe was just so different to anything else — no carpet on the floor, nothing on the table; I was used to eight knives, eight forks, and suddenly I was joining a place with great food topped with rock and roll music. I was used to seeing men in suits and ties, and then all of a sudden the rock stars were coming in — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, with their platform shoes and long jackets and I was just in awe.

So Hard Rock Cafe made the industry more casual?

Hard Rock Cafe co-founders, Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett started the first ‘classless’ restaurant where everyone was allowed to come in — the banker, the baker, the bin man. It’s a great motto and I really believe in it — “love all, serve all, all is one”. I was teaching bankers, lawyers and accountants how to eat with their hands. We changed the culture and we made it fun. The Hard Rock had a relaxed atmosphere, great value for money, great homemade food, and rock and roll.

You are now the cultural attaché — what does that mean?

On June 13, 1996, the eve of our 25th anniversary, the CEO at the time called me at about two minutes to midnight and he said “I’ve just told John Crippen — who was their director at the time — from today you’re coming off the floor. You’re going to travel the world and you’re going to teach the spirit of rock and roll”. I hadn’t even accepted the job yet and the next day the papers had the news. But for the Hard Rock I would have done anything, and I’ve been travelling the world since. I’ve been to about 48 countries, if not more, and I’ve opened about 160 Hard Rocks.

How does service in the Middle East compare to other places you have visited?

I was in a five-star hotel recently in Ireland where the restaurant staff did not greet anyone or show me to my seat, even though I’d waited 20 minutes and the restaurant was empty. When I wanted to look at the bar, they wouldn’t allow me in until 6pm, even just to have a look... that’s not service. Now, I’ve come [to Dubai] and I’m paying top price but the service is fantastic. If I come here and pay top price, I want good service. I gave it, and Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged me for it with an MBE. People have money today, people have choice today; if they don’t get good service here in the Hard Rock, they’re going to go somewhere else and they are not coming back. So you have to give good service and I think that people deserve that.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

I’ve travelled the world and smashed guitars, but what I love is the staff. They are the ones bringing the brand forward — the brand that people said wouldn’t last three months because we wouldn’t be able to sell burgers to an Englishman. The staff are the ambassadors, the people that serve the customers. People say to me “you seem to love your job”, but every member here loves their job. It’s very rare that staff are unhappy.

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