The Untold Truth Of Hard Rock Cafe

If you're looking to dine on a cheeseburger within mere feet of one of Jimi Hendrix's guitars and pick up a t-shirt to boot, there's really only one restaurant to consider: Hard Rock Cafe. Even if it's been years since you visited a Hard Rock Cafe — or you've never been — you've without a doubt seen the brand's famous t-shirts. Seriously, no trip to Myrtle Beach is complete without one. The legendary rock-themed restaurants can be found everywhere from exotic locations like Bali to family-friendly tourist cities such as Pigeon Forge, and Hard Rock Cafe has expanded its brand from restaurants to hotels, casinos, and live music venues on every continent but Antarctica.

While the chain might seem more like a bit of a tourist trap these days, it really was the epitome of cool when it was first founded. A real who's who of rock royalty hung out at the brand's original London location. Paul McCartney even chose the restaurant to mark the live debut of his band Wings in 1973.

An incredible collection of music memorabilia still hangs on the restaurants' walls, but how much longer the brand will keep rockin' remains uncertain. From its earliest beginnings to the current state of the chain, this is the untold truth of Hard Rock Cafe.

Hard Rock Cafe's owners launched the restaurant to fill a burger void

In the early 1970s, London was full of hip pubs and music venues blasting out the popular music of the day, but one thing it was lacking was a great place to get American burgers. At least that was the opinion of Hard Rock Cafe's founders, Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton. "There was no American restaurant in Europe," Tigrett said in an interview. "So it really became the first American restaurant, but more importantly, it really became the first classless restaurant in the UK." Tigrett went on to say that putting the first Hard Rock Cafe location so close to Buckingham Palace was the "perfect incongruent sort of piece missing" from the city's restaurant scene.

The two Americans found the perfect location for their new restaurant in an old Rolls Royce dealership. While the chain now may be a global beacon of American food and music, their landlord at the time didn't see the business venture having much potential and only allowed the two young entrepreneurs to sign a six-month lease. It didn't take long, though, for Morton and Tigrett's new restaurant to become the hottest spot in town with the in-crowd. "Sure enough, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when three weeks later the place was filled with famous musicians," Tigrett said. "[It] became this mecca."

Hard Rock Cafe's logo has real rock 'n roll credibility

The logo of the Hard Rock Cafe marks nearly every piece of merchandise from the brand and is instantly recognizable. Tigrett knew that he wanted a logo that was pure Americana and thought something modeled after the classic Chevrolet logo would be the perfect fit. Sure, the restaurateurs could have tapped a graphic design firm in London to come up with a logo for the brand, but that wouldn't be too rock 'n roll, now would it? 

Instead, they hired artist Alan Aldridge, who was known for his psychedelic and surrealist designs and had connections to the music world. Aldridge had already created graphics for the Beatles and The Who, and a few years after creating Hard Rock's logo, he would create the album cover for Elton John's Captain Fantastic. Clearly it was the perfect pairing for a rock-themed restaurant. According to Hard Rock Cafe's website, that initial logo was supposed to be red, white, and blue, but feeling the color scheme might be a little too American, Aldridge, Tigrett, and Morton settled with the now-iconic mustard yellow and maroon lettering.

Hard Rock Cafe makes serious money from its t-shirts

That iconic Hard Rock Cafe logo has been especially good to the brand when it comes to merchandise. Plenty of chain restaurants try to offer patrons more than a meal and send them away with a t-shirt, but few have come close to the success of Hard Rock Cafe. Pop culture site The Hundreds argues that the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt is the world's "most popular graphic t-shirt," and while the article doesn't provide any specific numbers, it might just be right.

T-shirts and other merchandise account for a staggering 40 percent of the brand's business (via AdAge). Oddly enough, Hard Rock Cafe sort of fell into the t-shirt business by accident. The brand never set out to become a merchandising juggernaut for tourists, but in 1974, the brand created some t-shirts with a logo for a local football team the chain was supporting. The leftovers were given out to patrons, and it wasn't long before people started asking about how they could get one of the new shirts. Pretty soon, a separate register just for merchandise was put in, simply because so many people were wandering in off the street for the sole purpose of buying a t-shirt. 

Today, of course, those iconic white shirts are just the tip of Hard Rock Cafe's merchandise iceberg, and guests can grab everything from swimsuits to backpacks and face masks.

Hard Rock Cafe started collecting music memorabilia by chance

Besides buying a t-shirt or chowing down on a burger, one of the restaurant's biggest draws is its collection of music memorabilia. Visitors at every location can gaze up at the walls and see iconic instruments, clothing, and handwritten lyrics from music's biggest stars of past and present. Just like the brand's now incredibly successful merchandise department, this was not a strategic marketing plan dreamed up by Morton and Tigrett. It was totally a lucky break thanks to British guitar legend Eric Clapton.

Clapton was a regular at the London restaurant and sent the owners one of his guitars to be placed over his favorite barstool (via Nava). Not to be outdone, The Who guitarist Pete Townsend sent a guitar a week later with a note reading: "Mine's as good as his! Love, Pete" From there, things just snowballed, and one musician after another began donating pieces from their personal collections.

According to Tigrett, only around 50 percent of Hard Rock Cafe's memorabilia is donated, and the rest of it is purchased from various auctions or collections. Pinning a number on how much all that music memorabilia is worth today is a difficult task, but in 1986, Tigrett estimated it to be valued at around $5 million. Much of the collection has obviously appreciated in value since then, and the collection today has ballooned to over 80,000 items.

Hard Rock Cafe's World Burger tour features burger flavors from around the globe

Considering that Hard Rock Cafe was founded out of a need to share American burgers with the world, it's only natural the brand would continue on with that tradition. The burger is pretty much a universal food these days, and Hard Rock Cafe wanted to pay homage to the various burger flavors from around the globe with its annual World Burger Tour.

During these promotions, customers could order burgers that captured different flavors from around the globe. Because why enjoy a plain old cheeseburger when you can dine on a Tandoori Chicken Burger made with aromatic Indian spices and topped with mint mayonnaise? The international burger flavors varied from year to year, so guests never knew what they were going to get. For example, 2015 had burgers such as the Date Burger, a beef patty that drew inspiration from the United Arab Emirates and was topped with diced dates and date chutney. Other World Burger Tours have included Greek, Vietnamese, and Spanish-themed burgers.

And for fans who love burgers and have the cash to throw down, the chain offered an actual burger world tour package. Besides "unlimited access" to all of these burgers, the vacation included first-class hotel accommodations at Hard Rock locations around the globe.

While it doesn't look like the World Burger Tour has been around for the past few years, we can always hope it comes back.

Hard Rock Cafe's first waitress still works for the company

One could easily assume that Rita Gilligan has met more rock stars than any other waitress in the world. Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, members of The Rolling Stones, and Freddie Mercury ... she's met them all and countless others. Rubbing elbows with rock royalty just comes with the territory when you've been working at the premier rock 'n roll restaurant since day one.

Gilligan was one of the first servers hired by the restaurant in 1971, and now in her 70s, she's still working for Hard Rock Cafe. Gilligan told The Irish Post that she saw a restaurant ad looking for "older women ... late 30s, 40s, and 50s" but was told by one of the owners that 29, she was too young. Gilligan talked her way into the job and has since worked her way up from server to brand ambassador.

Naturally, she's picked up a few stories along the way and has taken all those years and famous faces she's served and compiled them in a book: The Rock and Roll Waitress at the Hard Rock Cafe. As of 2019, fans can still visit her at the original London restaurant (via BBC).

Hard Rock Cafe customers can score a free meal if they sing

Dining at Hard Rock Cafe might not be ridiculously pricey, but it's not exactly a cheap meal either. According to Consumer Edge Insight (via AdAge), 35 percent of the restaurant's visitors consider it to be "too expensive." So how does one skirt Hard Rock Cafe's prices altogether? Well, you'll need to visit on the right day and have a certain amount of stage confidence.

For the last several years, the brand has made an effort to help everyone get a meal by offering customers the chance to score a free burger. The only catch is that they must sing for their supper (vocal talent not required). "Anyone who sings will get a burger, whether they're good or bad," Nikki Yourison, PR manager at the Hard Rock Cafe in Tampa, Florida, said.

The restaurant has reportedly given away thousands of burgers since it started the campaign, and guests are invited to pick the song of their choosing from a selected playlist to sing. At certain locations, such as Nashville, a live band is even on hand to provide backup music — and perhaps some added confidence — to those taking the stage for the free burger.

Hard Rock Cafe pins are incredibly popular

It's not just the t-shirts that are incredibly popular sellers at Hard Rock Cafe. The brand's collectible pins are also highly coveted. Hard Rock Cafe has pins for every location, holiday, and event imaginable, with a total of 84,000 different pins for collectors to seek out. From guitar-shaped pins to pins of pin-up girls, the variety is nearly endless. The popularity of Hard Rock Cafe's pins has spread across the globe with fans going to incredible lengths to acquire more for their collection.

Pin fanatic Gregg Morton said that he was bitten by the pin bug while working in Bangkok and has since logged over 500,000 miles to amass his 4,838 pins (via Nola). Morton swears he's not obsessed with pin collecting but says it's "just something to do" and he likes the camaraderie of his fellow pin fans.

Morton is far from alone when it comes to pin collecting. The official Hard Rock Cafe Pin Collectors' Club was formed in 1993 so that collectors could trade/sell pins and meet up to nerd out on hard-to-find pieces.

Hard Rock Cafe is now owned by a Native American tribe

It's not unusual for popular businesses to change ownership. While Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton may have founded Hard Rock Cafe, its ownership today lies with the Seminole Indians. The Florida-based tribe bought the Hard Rock Cafe brand in 2006 for the hefty price of $965 million (via CNN Money). The tribe already owned two Hard Rock Cafe casinos in Florida, but the business deal gave them control of the brand's then 124 Hard Rock Cafes, four hotels, two casino hotels, and two concert venues.

The tribe's president of gaming operations, Jim Allen, beat out around 70 other bidders for the restaurant brand. The purchase of Hard Rock Cafe has been incredibly beneficial for the 4,100-member tribe. According to Forbes, the Hard Rock Cafe brand had a revenue of over $5 billion in 2016, which allowed every person in the tribe to receive biweekly payments that totaled to around $128,000 a year, along with free healthcare and college tuition.

Plans to open a new Hard Rock Hotel literally collapsed

One of the brand's more recent struggles has been the disaster around its plans to build a Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans. The chain already had a Hard Rock Cafe on Bourbon Street that had been in operation since 1987, but it had started construction of a hotel in 2019. Those plans to build the hotel literally came crashing down when the building partially collapsed. Three workers were killed and dozens more sustained injuries. It would take nine months to pull two of those bodies from the site's rubble.

It wasn't just the horrific collapse of the hotel that put the Hard Rock Cafe in a bad light, but also the various roadblocks and obstacles leading up to it. Before construction even began, one of the project's developers was given a prison sentence for overbilling a government program. As for the cause of the hotel's collapse: It simply couldn't hold the weight. The construction project's developers were supposed to submit plans showing it could hold the weight of 125 tons. However, that didn't happen. Instead, they submitted plans from a different project that had only been tested to withstand 50 tons — yeah, a pretty big difference.

Not surprisingly, a $12 million lawsuit — that will likely drag on for years — was filed by the city of New Orleans against the hotel's owners and building contractors.

The Hard Rock Cafe's future looks uncertain

In October 2019, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, unveiled a $1.5 billion expansion. In September 2020, however, that same casino had to layoff over 1,500 workers because of the coronavirus pandemic. While COVID-19 has hit the restaurant industry especially hard, Hard Rock Cafe had already been struggling for a number of years.

As CBS noted in 2010, the recession hit the chain hard with numerous closures, and a widening reputation for having overpriced, mediocre food didn't help amidst the rise of foodie culture. In the years since, the chain has had to close even more longstanding locations such as the Detroit location that had been open 15 years and the Phoenix location that had been open for 24 years. Neither of these closures could be blamed on the pandemic. Perhaps most troublesome was the brand's decision to close its Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel. Hard Rock had been a fixture in Vegas for 25 years, and if Hard Rock Cafe can't thrive in a touristy party city like Las Vegas, where can it thrive?

In a July 2020 interview with CNBC, chairman Jim Allen didn't mince words and said the brand was "barely open" in certain markets. Being seen as more than a dated tourist attraction to millenials was already a challenge, and the coronavirus just compounded that problem. "There's no other way to describe it than it is struggling," Allen said.