Magazine / People

Hard Rock Life

"Great ideas that offer great value for money will always do well, regardless of what’s going on economically,” says Peter Morton. Photo: Nancy Newman/Pro Photography Network

It all started because Peter Morton couldn’t find a decent hamburger in London.

It was the early 1970s, and the recent DU grad was in England en route to his new job on Wall Street. Fate intervened.

“I had planned to go to work for a large restaurant company after not getting into law school, and I got a job with a company back East that was headquartered in New York,” Morton told a group of students at DU’s Daniels College of Business during a speech he gave in March. “I was on my way home, I was in London, and there was no McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s — there was no American food there, and I saw this food vacuum in London. I borrowed some money and went into business.”

Morton (BSBA hotel and restaurant management ’69) first opened a place called the Great American Disaster, followed shortly by the Hard Rock Cafe, which brought American-style hamburgers and ice cream to the city best known for fish and chips and bangers and mash. An October 1971 Newsweek article details Morton and co-founder Isaac Tigrett’s quest to find the perfect ground beef, buns and ice cream for their new venture. Within weeks there were lines out the door; they lasted for years.

“We did phenomenal business because we were selling very inexpensive food, we were giving great value for money, people were having a great time,” Morton told the Daniels audience. “For very little money you could go out and have a great time in a great atmosphere. Great ideas that offer great value for money will always do well, regardless of what’s going on [economically].”

Despite its name, the Hard Rock didn’t start off as a rock ’n’ roll museum. That all changed when Eric Clapton stopped by the original London location one day for a beer.

“He came in and he gave Isaac Tigrett, one of our founders, a guitar,” waitress Rita Gilligan recalls in a video on the Hard Rock website. “Isaac said, ‘I don’t play the guitar.’ So Clapton said, ‘OK, let’s hang it on the wall.’ Pete Townshend [of the Who] of course heard about this and sent his guitar with a note that said ‘Mine’s as good as his — get it up.’”

That was the beginning of an unrivaled rock collection that today includes more than 70,000 items, including handwritten lyrics to the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” harmonicas and guitars played by Bob Dylan, and a pair of Buddy Holly’s signature horn-rimmed glasses.


A Hard Rock world

Tigrett and Morton decided to go global in the early 1980s, developing their own restaurants in different parts of the world. Morton opened Hard Rocks in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Hawaii, Australia and elsewhere, while Tigrett opened in New York, Dallas, Boston, Washington, D.C., Orlando, Paris and Berlin. Today there are 149 Hard Rock Cafes in 53 countries.

The chain’s “love all, serve all” motto, mixed with tasty food and a generous dose of rock ’n’ roll, made it a cultural phenomenon, says David Simmer, a Hard Rock enthusiast who has visited 136 different locations since 1986.

“It was huge, and that was because they made it huge,” Simmer says. “It wasn’t just some dive that you went to; it’s that you went there for the experience of being there, of seeing this awesome rock memorabilia in a way that you wouldn’t get to see it anywhere else. The guitars weren’t locked behind glass cases; you could walk up to [them]. [They were] bolted to the wall. That’s what made the Hard Rock so cool. It was a museum, but it was unlike any museum you’d ever been to.”

Also key to the Hard Rock’s success and visibility was the iconic yellow-on-white Hard Rock T-shirt, which introduced restaurants around the world to a new source of revenue: merchandise.

“We had a lot of young Americans that the Hard Rock [in London] became a must-see situation on their travel agenda, and one day I thought it would be great if we had a souvenir to be able to sell to them, and why don’t we put our logo on a T-shirt,” Morton told host Jonathan Tisch on a 2009 episode of the business program “Beyond the Boardroom.” “It was something as simple as that. I can’t tell you there was some grand marketing plan. We literally had some T-shirts printed, brought a couple dozen up to the cashier’s desk, and she would sell them out of a cardboard box.”

The genius stroke? Emblazoning each shirt with the name of the city in which it was located, making them collectible items for globetrotting yuppies and college kids looking for a fashionable way to tell people where they’d been.

“You’d see people in countries where there were Hard Rocks wearing gear from Hard Rocks in other countries and other cities where they’d visited,” says David Corsun, director of DU’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. “All the retail served the purpose of advertising, only people were paying them for the privilege of wearing the shirt. They were getting people all over the world wearing this stuff and being brand ambassadors, which only served to create more demand.”

And though many theme restaurants followed in its wake — Planet Hollywood, ESPN Zone, Dave and Buster’s — the Hard Rock was the first and among the most successful. Morton and his partners sold the chain in 1996 for $410 million. He kept one significant piece of memorabilia — a Flying V guitar once owned by Jimi Hendrix.

In 1995, with a $65 million initial investment, he opened the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and upended notions about hospitality in the high-stakes city.

“It changed the demographic that people directed their marketing campaigns to in Vegas,” says Morton, who once got to introduce the Rolling Stones on the hotel’s stage. “Now they’re all pretty much focusing on that 20- to 40-year-old-segment.” He eventually put a total of about $200 million into the property; he sold it in 2007 for $800 million.


Morton in the ’10s

These days, Morton lives the life of a laid-back philanthropist at his beachfront home in Malibu, Calif. He is a man of many titles: restaurateur, hotelier, single parent, movie producer, environmentalist. Around Los Angeles, the Chicago-born Morton is known as one of the city’s biggest benefactors and collectors of contemporary art and architecturally significant homes.

He’s the third-generation Morton to work in hospitality — even his grandfather made a name for himself as a bootlegger selling whiskey. Peter Morton’s father, the late Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton, built the successful Morton’s Steakhouse chain and, in partnership with Hugh Hefner, developed the Playboy Clubs.

In addition to the Hard Rock, Peter Morton opened Morton’s restaurant in Los Angeles, which for years attracted Hollywood’s elite at its annual post-Oscar party.

Morton’s brother Michael (BSBA hotel and restaurant management ’87) opened La Cave Wine & Food Hideaway inside Wynn Las Vegas in December 2010. Michael recently sold his N9NE Group, which operates restaurants and clubs — including the Ghostbar chain—in Dallas, Las Vegas and Chicago.

Peter Morton’s twin sister, Pam, ran the Los Angeles Morton’s until it closed in 2007, while his son Harry, 30, operates Pink Taco, a Mexican restaurant chain now reduced to one Los Angeles location.

Morton’s friends include music mogul David Geffen, who encouraged him to donate to the medical center at the University of California, Los Angeles. A $10 million gift in 2003 resulted in an outpatient building being named the Peter Morton Medical Building. He’s also active with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he has been a board member since 1991.

“He puts his attention to what he cares about,” says Frances Beinecke, president of the NRDC. “He cares deeply about the fate of the planet and the well-being not only of our species, but other species.” Having the well-connected Morton on the nonprofit’s board helped it gain traction on water quality issues, particularly on the West Coast, she says.

Even though his restaurants and hotel regularly attracted scores of celebrities as guests and investors, Morton remains unimpressed by his instant access to the famous.

“I don’t care about that,” he says without hesitation. “I’d rather spend time with family, a good friend or someone who shares my interests — traveling, collecting art, and homes.”

He’s not sour on the hospitality business, though — far from it. In his speech at DU in March, Morton revealed that he is considering opening a small boutique hotel with a focus on exercise, yoga and healthy eating. “It’s the type of place I would want to go to,” he said. “If I’m going to a resort property, I literally want to be in a place with 20 rooms, 25 rooms.”

It’s a concept he sounds passionate about, which makes sense. Passion, he says, is the key to success.

“If you’re not passionate about it, forget it,” he told the audience at Daniels. “If you’re just looking at it as ‘a job I’ve got to do to earn some money to pay some bills’ … I really can’t comment on that, because that’s not the way I’ve done things.

“The detail we put into the first Hard Rock, from every song that went in there, everything on the menu, how much we charged for it, what the atmosphere was going to be all about — you’ve got to have that passion, that commitment, that dedication. That’s what makes it great at the end of the day. When someone walks in there they can smell the difference.”


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