Grand Ambassador for the Hard Rock Café Rita Gilligan may have met every rock star imaginable, but the Galway native has also become a star in her own right.
Born in Bohermore in 1941, Rita Gilligan trained as a waitress in the Great Southern Hotel, now the Meyrick, during the 1950s before moving to London.
It was there she began her career in the Hard Rock Café. The Galway woman was one of the original members of staff in the world-famous franchise when it first opened its doors in London in 1971.
Coming from a fine dining background, Rita admits that starting out in the Hard Rock was a massive change. “It was all long hair and chains and velvet jackets and platform shoes. And you’d be looking in astonishment thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Soon after the Hard Rock Café opened its doors bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones became regular customers of the music-themed restaurant. Paul McCartney’s band Wings were the first band to play live in the restaurant and Mick Jagger’s brother Chris was the first bartender.
At 32, Rita was the youngest member of the original staff. Many of the other women couldn’t stand the constant loud music and left over time, but what kept Rita in the Hard Rock was her appreciation for the great work of its founders, Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton, who strove to create the first “classless” restaurant in Britain and to support charitable organisations.
This, she says, was the reason she loved her job and has stayed with the company for all these years. From the very beginning, Hard Rock Café staff never distinguished between the rock stars and the regular customers, treating them all the same.
For Rita, her work is all about the people. The 71-year-old only stopped serving as a waitress ten years ago and says that despite having opened hundreds of restaurants and serving thousands of people during her life, she always remembers a face and a story.
“It didn’t matter who came in; they were coming into my home, they were buttering my bread, paying my bills. Even if you just came in for a cup of coffee, I would make it such an experience for you that you would want to come back with your whole family,” she says.
Always more than a waitress, Rita befriended punters, staff and stars alike and is now considered an institution of the Hard Rock, holding the unique position of Grand Ambassador for the company.
As the longest serving member of staff, Rita’s role as Grand Ambassador takes her around the world contributing to a number of charitable initiatives set up by the company as well as opening Hard Rock restaurants, hotels and casinos, and introducing top music acts at the Hard Rock Calling festivals.
Recognised for her services to tourism with an honorary MBE in 1998, Rita’s time with the Hard Rock has brought her many friends including a number of famous faces. Former world tennis pro John McEnroe even once told the company’s CEO, ‘I’ve known Rita so long she used to change my diapers!’
Although her role takes her to every corner of the globe, Rita has her roots firmly planted in her hometown, which she describes as the most beautiful city in the world.
Having returned to Galway, Rita now splits her time between Bohermore and travelling around the world. “It’s not all about the glamour. I love getting back to Galway. My favourite place to have a tipple is in Paddy Fahy’s in Bohermore, where the Rabbittes play, who are the best musicians in the world.”