Veteran Hard Rock waitress dispenses a few tips of her own


RECENTLY I FOUND myself straining to hear what Rita Gilligan had to say about her career as a waitress in a rock and roll cafe. We were sitting in Baltimore's new Hard Rock Cafe, the latest addition to the string of 78 such cafes operating in various cities around the world.

The music was loud. It was in the foreground, not the background. But Rita, as she is soon called by all who meet her, said she didn't notice. She has been working with the volume turned up since 1971, when she was one of the first waitresses hired in London by the then-fledgling Hard Rock Cafe. "I don't even hear the music," she said. But she noted that pumping up the volume can lead to more tips for a waitress. "The louder the music, the quicker the turnover," she said with a wink.

A 56-year-old mother of three grown children, Rita did not fit my image of the kind of woman who worked in a place known for burgers, beers and its collection of rock-star photos and undergarments. She looked like an Irish grandmother, the kind fTC who holds your hand and gives you advice. That is exactly what she did to the stream of young Baltimore waitresses who stopped by her table to talk with her.

She is the Hard Rock's "cultural attache" working out of the London office and flying around the world for events such as the opening of the Baltimore restaurant. On such occasions she wears her "ribbons and medals," a glittering collection of pins from Hard Rock Cafes around world. She has about 400 pins. She wears about 80 at a time on her white waitress uniform.

"Her job is to tell what it is like to work at the Hard Rock," said Jim Berk, president and chief executive officer of Hard Rock Cafes in a telephone conversation from his office in Florida. "She is the link with our standards and our past. She forces you to loosen up." For example, he said, "Somehow she got me to stand on the bar at the London cafe and dance 'The YMCA' with her."

The technical side of instructing new waitresses -- how to place an order and how to pick it up -- is handled by other members of the staff. In fact, Rita's way of operating differs from some of the new teachings. For instance, in the Baltimore cafe, one waitress may take your order, but another may deliver your food. This team approach is supposed to speed the delivery of the meal. But Rita doesn't operate that way. If she orders it, she delivers it to the table. "Nobody touches my food," she said.

Her advice to new waitresses deals more with mental outlook. "I tell them, be proud of what you serve." She also tells them to "read the customer. If he is a businessman in a suit at lunchtime, you know he is in a hurry. If he is a tourist in the late afternoon, he may linger."

When you talk to customers, Rita said, you are always positive. A little ice-breaker, such as: "Are you on holiday?" is a good starter, she said.

One of her London customers once told her, "You're like a tonic," she recalled. This remark pleased her, Rita recalled, even though the customer, a thin woman who had ordered a vegetarian burger, didn't leave her a tip. She wanted to leave a tip, Rita recalled. But she was paying with a credit card, and at the time there was no place on the credit-card receipt for tips.

"I told her, 'Your intentions were good. That is what matters,' " Rita recalled. The woman turned out to be the wife of singer Willie Nelson and ended up sending Rita two free tickets to her husband's London performance.

Talking with a thick Irish brogue, Rita outlined her restaurant career. She grew up in Galway, on Ireland's west coast, and charmed her way into a job as a dishwasher in the town's Great Southern Hotel. She worked her way up to the hotel's "still room," brewing teas. Eventually she was promoted to waiting on tables, the first woman to hold that post.

The waitress job required three changes of clothes each day -- a green dress for breakfast, a blue dress for lunch and a black dress for dinner. The dresses were made of Irish linen, which she had to hand-wash each day and iron. When she walked down the streets of Galway in her freshly pressed, sometimes wet Irish linen, steam would roll off her clothes, she recalled.

She went to London looking for a better-paying job. There, she found one, after answering a newspaper advertisement for a restaurant seeking "matronly waitresses" like those found in America's roadside diners. The restaurant was the first Hard Rock Cafe. At first it shocked Rita to see burgers and salad, hot and cold food, on the same plate. But she adjusted to these American habits.

After years of shouting "two burgers," her throat is a little sore, and her knees hurt. And she is delighted to spend her time giving advice, spreading cheer.

She said that during her career she has served children of the English royal family and members of rock bands -- no names, please -- who were very impressed with themselves. She handled them all the same way, with a clap of her hands and pleasant but firm, "All right now, what will it be, boys?"

When they see you mean business, Rita said with knowing wink, "they come around."

Pub Date: 7/20/97

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