The Hard Rock Café has little to do today with what it was in the early 1970s with Hard Rock Cafe Death Star Shirt, when two American entrepreneurs, Isaac Tigrett, 22, and Peter Morton, 23, decided that London needed a casual restaurant around Hyde Park, the London’s cockiest area. “The early years were mind-boggling. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney or Freddie Mercury came to dinner. People were dressed extravagantly, drinking alcohol directly from the bottle and smoking joints openly,” says Rita Gilligan, one of the establishment’s first waitresses, who worked there for more than 25 years.
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The restaurant was a revulsion in the cramed British society. Until then, the restoration was an activity reserved mainly for the rich who came to dinner in tuxedos. In Hard Rock, on the other hand, there were music, burgers and live music, without the need to dress formally. 40 years pass and things mutate. Today it is more likely to find an American tourist with a few kilos more than a rock legend inside. The guitars and platinum records that hang from the wall are how little is left to attest that this space was, for a time, a meeting place for the musicians of the time.
The spirit of those years has been put into a can and has been attempted to reproduce in the chain’s more than 150 establishments worldwide. The presence of the Hard Rock is so ubiquitous that you could travel to cities like Buenos Aires, Phoenix, Beijing, Jakarta, Honolulu, Punta Cana or Florence and end the day dining in one of its establishments. The quest for lost authenticity leads companies to dig into the past and nostalgia. This is where Rita Gilligan’s figure comes in. In 1996, after more than 25 years of faithful service to the company as a waitress in London, Gilligan was promoted with Hard Rock Cafe Death Star Shirt.
With the firm’s founders practically disengaged, she was the little contact left with the glorious beginnings of the Hard Rock Café. The then CEO, Jim Berk, offered to be an ambassador for the brand. Today, at 70, she still holds this honorary position that took her to Madrid yesterday. “I’m the cultural addition,” she says proudly as she reaches out to give me her card. He’s not lying. Her business card reads: ‘Rita Gilligan, Cultural Attache/MBE’ (the acronym MBE is an award given by the Queen, a step below ‘Sir’). Behind her hangs from the wall a sign advertising a Melendi concert in the hall, a perhaps example of how things have changed.
Gilligan is the few people who can brag about making a living for counting battalions. In that sense it’s a whirlwind when he tells stories. “It all started when my husband, in 1970, found an ad in the press saying they were looking for waitresses. I had been working in hospitality in central London for years and went in search of that job. When I got to the place, which would soon be the Hard Rock Café, I found myself a young man and hairy i asked for directions. He replied that he owned the site. It was Peter Morton.”
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“During the interview I already knew that this was a different place than usual. It was very informal and, while talking to Morton, he smoked a huge joint. I was actually looking for larger staff to give the look of a ‘diner’ of the 1950s. I lied about my age and told him I was 32. Although he had doubts about whether I was very young, I got the job.”
About the company’s founders, Gilligan says they were like night and day. “Morton was the ambitious businessman and most concerned about peeling. Isaac was a hippie. He brought some really weird people to the restaurant and didn’t care if you were rich or poor. In that sense, the restaurant was very different from the time because it was not a classical is, like the other places in London. There were people from all walks of life who came to eat or have a drink,” he explains.
In addition to giving interviews to talk about the company, Gilligan gets involved in restaurant openings. “I go to each country and help train the staff. I tell you things about the history of the Hard Rocks. I’m the connection to the past.” Nor is it the opinion that the Hard Rock Café has lost its soul. “We invest a lot in our workers. They’re all we’ve got. They’re the most important thing in the company. We donate between $3 million and $4 million a year to charity.” Gilligan also says not to be very fond of the American style of restoration. ‘I don’t like being sold everything when you walk in the door. I always treated the customer the same if he had a coffee or a bottle of champagne. I was clear that the locals had to be taken care of, too. When winter came and the tourists left, they were the ones who came back.” The enthusiasm of this waitress-turned-ambassador is laudable. Repeat the same phrases that you’ve probably uttered hundreds of times to journalists around the world without giving any signs of being bored. “If I have the best job in the world.” She says she is proud to have participated in such a democratization concept summed up in the company’s motto “Love all, serve all”, an example of Hard Rock Cafe Death Star Shirt that extraordinary ability of American baby boomers to turn hippism and liberalism into the ’60s and ’70s, on a commodity.