Move over, keyboard-playing cats and subway singers. The newest internet sensation is 85-year-old newspaper writer Marilyn Hagerty, whose endearingly straightforward review of the first Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, N.D., a town of just over 65,000 people, has caught the attention of Gawker, the Today show, and millions of chain-restaurant fans. What makes her review so memorable, and what do we know about this breakout restaurant critic? Here, a brief guide:
What was this review?
"[The new Olive Garden] is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks," she observed, simply, in the March 7 edition of the Grand Forks Herald, "It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here." She visited the popular chain restaurant for a late lunch, ordering a chicken Alfredo ($10.95) that she remarked was "warm and comforting on a cold day." She opted for water instead of the raspberry lemonade her server suggested, but conceded "on a hot summer day, I will try the raspberry lemonade that was recommended." The decor didn't escape her keen eye: "As I ate, I noticed 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 review is almost jarring in its earnestness, says Nancy Shute at NPR.
And this went viral?
After being picked up by the likes of Gawker, Boing Boing, and The Huffington Post — and then spreading quickly across the internet — Hagerty's review has amassed over 27,900,000 Facebook likes, and has been tweeted 16,400,000 times. As of Wednesday, the Herald reported that it's received over 300,000 page views — though the tally has surely risen since then. The paper normally considers any story that draws 5,000 page views a runaway success.
Why is it so popular?
It initially earned mockery; snarky bloggers seemingly couldn't believe that anyone would sincerely review a chain restaurant. Since then, other writers have come to Hagerty's defense. The review exemplifies something "the elite media just doesn't get," says Ann Brenoff at The Huffington Post. It's service journalism: Telling local readers, without pretense, what a new restaurant is like and how much it will cost them. Perhaps the review's popularity can be attributed to nostalgia as well, says Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing. Those of us who grew up in places where Olive Garden really was the best restaurant offering "can't help but feel a warm twinge of homesickness reading this." It resonates with those of us who went to Applebee's for our "fancy high school graduation dinner."
What do we know about Marilyn?
Hagerty's been employed by the Grand Forks Herald since the 1950s (the exact date is unclear, since personnel records were destroyed in a 1997 flood, and Haggerty isn't sure of the date). "In the old days, her title was society editor and she wrote about comings and goings in town," says the paper's publisher Mike Jacobs. She officially retired about 20 years ago, but continues to write three columns for the paper, including the Eatbeat column every Wednesday, in which her Olive Garden review ran. Hagerty's husband died in that 1997 flood, and she devotes much of her time to her eight grandchildren and volunteering at church.
What's she up to now?
Currently, Hagerty is living out her 15 minutes. She's appeared on Piers Morgan's CNN show, the Today show, Good Morning America, and CBS This Morning to talk about her review, and has been so busy that she reportedly brushed off an offer to sit down with Jay Leno. On Tuesday, she flew to New York City at the behest of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who tweeted, "Very much enjoying watching internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included)" after reading her review. Bourdain even secured her a table at the high-end eatery Le Bernardin, "the posh Manhattan seafood restaurant that is a haven for foodies who frown on the likes of the Olive Garden," says Ethan Sacks at New York's Daily News.
How's Marilyn handling her newfound fame?
When her story first started picking up steam, her son James, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, emailed her: "You've gone viral!" Her reply: "Could you tell me what viral means?" In a story called, "When Mom Goes Viral," James recounts that his mother was initially unimpressed by the attention. "I'm working on my Sunday column and I'm going to play bridge this afternoon," she explained. "So I don't have time to read all this crap. Now that she's spent some time embroiled in the media whirlwind, her tune's changed a bit. "It's like I'm dreaming," she told a fellow reporter for the Herald. "One of these days, I'll go back to being the little lady on Cottonwood St."