Published March 10, 2012
A North Dakota newspaper columnist sat down to review her town's hot new Italian restaurant, rhapsodizing about the chicken Alfredo, crisp greens and "two long, warm breadsticks."
But because the restaurant was the Olive Garden, Marilyn Hagerty's earnest assessment swiftly became an Internet sensation, drawing comments both sincere and sarcastic from food bloggers and others. For the 85-year-old Hagerty, the response was bewildering — and it threatened to make her late for a bridge game.
Hagerty's column in the Grand Forks Herald focuses on local food, and in North Dakota that means chain restaurants that are shunned by big-city food critics. She's reviewed Ruby Tuesday, Pizza Ranch, Applebee's and Country Kitchen. Even fast-food joints such as KFC, Qdoba and Subway have undergone scrutiny.
But it was her unfailingly polite prose about the Olive Garden — complete with a detailed description of the bustling waiters — that catapulted her to online stardom, at least briefly.
"At length, I asked my server what she would recommend," Hagerty wrote in the column called Eatbeat published Wednesday. "She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water."
The Olive Garden is "the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks," she concluded. "It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here."
By Friday morning, her appraisal had received more than 290,000 hits on the newspaper's website. The second most-read story — a report about the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname — got a mere 5,500 views.
"I do not get it," Hagerty said Friday. "I mean, I'm sitting here minding my own business yesterday morning, trying to get my Friday column finished off so I could go play bridge. And all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose."
Within hours of appearing, the piece was spreading rapidly across the Web.
"Residents of Grand Forks, N.D., are lining up for blocks to enjoy a one-of-a-kind European dining experience that finally puts the city on the culinary map with its unique brand of Tuscany refinery," mocked the news website Fark. "It's called The Olive Garden."
But this is what Hagerty does.
"She writes five columns a week, and they are all this sort of this very direct, no-nonsense approach to what's going on," said Mike Jacobs, publisher of the newspaper. "She has her detractors, but she's very popular. She's a real asset to the Herald."
It's not the first thrill created by an Olive Garden opening in North Dakota. Back in 2008, when construction began on a location in Bismarck, it was front-page news in the Bismarck Tribune.
Hagerty said she was surprised by the reaction. She called her son, Wall Street Journal reporter Bob Hagerty, to ask what it meant to "go viral."
She acknowledged that some bloggers were making fun of her, but said she has received dozens of emails from people defending her, too.
Hagerty, whose late husband, Jack, was the longtime editor of the Herald, has been writing for the paper for six decades. She estimates she's done more than 1,500 restaurant reviews. And when she's found the cuisine to be terrible, she skips the review.
That's the way her bosses want it, she said.
"It's just sort of a way of life for me, to go out and eat," she said, adding that she pays for all her meals.
Tom Sietsema, food critic for The Washington Post and a Minnesota native, said Hagerty need not apologize for her choice of restaurants.
"Here's what I think. People poke fun of the Olive Garden. But, hey, if that's what the people there are talking about, that's theirs. She is covering news," Sietsema said.
He did have one complaint about the review, and it came with a chuckle. Marilyn didn't try any other entrees.
"She based this whole review on one dish, and she didn't even bother to have a lemonade. She did not do a thorough job," Sietsema said.
The restaurant could not have paid for such intense publicity, he added, calling this "Olive Garden's lucky day."
The same could be said for the Grand Forks Herald, Jacobs said.
"I'm delighted," Jacobs said. "We got a quarter of million hits on our website. Every modern newspaper editor dreams of such of thing. But you can never make it happen. It sort of happens on its own."
Heidi Schauer, spokeswoman for Olive Garden, said she read the review and a "lot of the other articles" that have followed.
"We're appreciative of the attention the restaurant is getting," she said. "Business is going well, and we're just excited for the Grand Forks community."