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.
“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.”
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.”
Hagerty, whose late husband, Jack, was the longtime editor of the Herald, has been writing for the paper for six decades.