Restaurant Review of The Olive Garden Goes Viral

How does one 85-year-old North Dakota woman cause pasta discourse to go viral? By writing about – and highly praising – the Olive Garden, the Italian chain restaurant many Americans  love to diss.

When Marilyn Hagerty, columnist and food critic for the local Grand Forks Herald paper, visited the city’s new Olive Garden restaurant (a place she hadn’t been to since dining at the location in Fargo a few years ago), she apparently enjoyed good service and a very satisfying eating experience. “After a lengthy wait for Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, the lines were long in February,” she wrote. “The novelty is slowly wearing off, but the steady following attests the warm welcome.” (This also highlights the probability that this city of 50,000 does not have quite the variety of restaurants larger cities boast. However, the state of North Dakota does count buffalo jerky as a delicacy -- and it has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.) And from the pleasant waitress to the crisp salad to the main entrée, Hagerty deemed the midday meal a thumbs-up event.

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“The chicken Alfredo,” she wrote, “was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.”

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Other highlights from the review:

  • “The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting.”
  • “My booth was near the kitchen, and I watched the waiters in white shirts, ties, black trousers and aprons adorned with gold-colored towels. They were busy at midday, punching in orders and carrying out bread and pasta.”
  • “As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor.”

The summing up of her supping experience: “All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here.”

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The paper then published the review on March 7, including it on their website. You would think  it would have ended there. But Hagerty, who has reviewed about 1,500 other restaurants for the paper, saw her innocuous little food write-up cause a viral commotion as it was picked up (and snarked about) by blogs, such as Fark, Boingboing and Gawker, who found it utterly hilarious that anyone could wax rhapsodic about the not-quite-elitist chain. By Friday morning, the review had received 290,000 hits. Compare that to the newspaper’s second-best-performing story, which got less than 6,000 hits, and it’s fair to say the Olive Garden is a topic that draws eyeballs.  

Facebook and the Twittersphere have also been buzzing with more snark and plenty of defenders of Hagerty, who has written for the paper for 60 years. She has even caught the attention of such food celebs as Anthony Bourdain, who told his Twitter followers he was "very much enjoying watching Internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included)." According to the AP, she had to ask her son, who just happens to be Wall Street Journal reporter Bob Hagerty, what “going viral” meant. Prediction: She’ll soon land on a national talk show host’s couch.

Olive Garden Planning Overhaul

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The Olive Garden, which is owned by Darden Restaurants (DRI) and belongs to the same family as Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille, caused buzz recently as it announced it was looking to switch up its menu to provide lower-cost, healthier options to its customers in an effort to boost sagging sales at its 700 U.S. locations. The Garden received praise from First Lady Michelle Obama for the planned healthier overhaul of its children's menu. The chain also plans to give its restaurants a new look and roll out an updated ad campaign. Perhaps this unexpected publicity will give the Garden the lift its been looking for?

What’s interesting about this latest flap is that Hagerty has given positive reviews to several other chain restaurants, including Ruby Tuesday (RT) and Applebee's, and she has even penned pieces on fast food joints such as KFC and Subway. All those reviews have gone unnoticed, so what is it about the Olive Garden that inspires such pasta-fueled passion? As this Atlantic Wire piece points out, “The Olive Garden hits some kind of middlebrow sweet spot, where people really do like it...but it's also a goofy chain with overblown pretensions toward authenticity.”

And, of course, those endless breadsticks.

*Update: Watch Marilyn Hagerty's appearance on CBS This Morning Saturday.

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