Olive Garden Receipt on Reddit Tells Heartwarming and Viral Tale

Olive Garden free mealThe one thing the Internet loves above all else is cats. But maybe the second thing is restaurant receipts. At least a dozen receipts have gone viral in the past few years, almost always because of an insulting tip or a racial slur. The latest viral receipt, however, is the kind that restores your faith in humanity. It shows an act of corporate generosity so rare, apparently, that an online backlash erupted calling it a fraud.

Last Sunday, a man went out to eat at Olive Garden with his brother, wife, and 3-year-old daughter, according to his post on the anonymous online forum Reddit. The Reddit user said that the restaurant manager came over to ask how everything was, and the child informed him that her grandpa's house had just burned down. When they received the bill for their meal, the total was listed as "0.00."

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UPDATE 4.30 p.m. EDT: The man posted under the Reddit username Tanek42, but confirmed his real identity to AOL Jobs. Seth McClure, 30, is a third-year law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law, with a stay-at-home wife, and two kids. His parents really had been through a house fire a couple weeks before, he said, destroying the majority of their home, including his own childhood bedroom.

McClure decided to upload a photo of the receipt in the early hours of Wednesday morning because, he said: "You don't see a lot of nice stuff coming on the news very often, and I thought it was a nice thing that Olive Garden did."

When McClure woke up Wednesday morning, he said, his Reddit inbox was filled with messages, some telling him that "he should get cancer," and others calling him a "corporate shill." His receipt had gone viral; as of Wednesday afternoon it had received almost 900,000 views and over 1,600 comments, many roundly praising Olive Garden for a random act of kindness, but others accusing McClure of being the agent in a PR stunt.

A Reddit user going by the name iworkinadvertising, who claims to be a journalist covering advertising, said ad agencies will encourage employees to have active social media accounts, and then on occasion will call on those employees to post a positive story related to one of their clients. Tanek42 was just a fraud, he said, and his receipt "free advertising."

Skeptics also pointed out that the receipt in the photograph is perfectly framed by the Olive Garden logo, that all information identifying the specific Olive Garden restaurant is conveniently obscured, and that the user who posted the image became active on Reddit less than a month ago, and hasn't responded to any of the controversy. In other words, they smell a rat. (Since then, McClure has posted dozens of replies to commenters.)

Olive Garden and its primary ad agency, Grey Worldwide, were quickly inundated with calls. Olive Garden spokeswoman Tara Gray told AOL Jobs via email that the receipt is "real and posted by the guests," and came from an Olive Garden in Vernon Hills, Ill. A hostess who answered the phone at the restaurant also said that the receipt was real, and that there was a waitress on staff with the first name Susan and the last initial F, as seen on the receipt.

The head of corporate communications for Grey Worldwide, also flatly denied any foul play. "It's completely against our corporate code of conduct," said Owen Dougherty. "You don't plant things that aren't true."

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"It's like the Kennedy assassination conspiracy," he added, in reference to the comment thread accusing Olive Garden and its ad agency of fraud. "We wouldn't take a chance [at planting something fake], because we're so big and global."

McClure isn't so surprised that his post attracted critics. "I think it's the Internet, right. It goes at light speed," he said. "You've got people on both sides, and there are always skeptics. In the end, you just hope the truth comes out."

But there have been cases of companies and individuals using social media to promote themselves in sometimes sneaky ways. Reddit, which prides itself on honesty and authenticity, is particularly hostile to such attempts. Famously (in the Reddit world), Woody Harrelson hopped on the site last year and invited users to ask him questions about "anything." But when the exchange came off like a promotional interview for his new movie, fans were whipped into a rage.

Reddit will also ban users who appear to only post content that they created, and last year prohibited all links from The Atlantic and Businessweek after it determined that links from those news sources were appearing so often that they qualified as spam.

The review site Yelp is another platform that has grappled with the issue of phony PR. Yelp now outs companies for paying for positive reviews, and filters out what it deems to be fraudulent comments (sometimes to the frustration of companies who claim that the reviews are genuine). Some stores and restaurants have paid people between $50 and $100 to write some flattering copy, reported ABC News.

With all of this online abuse, it seems the public has become largely cynical of anything that resembles positive PR. "I guess it was just unbelievable that a company would actually do something that was actually nice," said McClure.

But at least in this case Tanek42 is not a sneaky spambot of casual Italian dining, but truly a scholarship law student with two kids, a mortgage, and parent's whose house just burned down -- and who happened to have a heart-warming experience at Olive Garden. The best kind of free advertising there is.

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This happened to us at a Cracker Barrel in Jacksonville, FL. We had been to the hospital to see my ex Mother-in-Law, who was terminal. We did not tell the waitstaff that she was. Best we could figure, was they had maybe overheard us discussing her care and move to Hospice, or something. We were sitting there for quite a while, waiting for our bill. When I went to the front counter to ask if we could get it, they informed us that it had been "taken care of". I don't know if the restaurant comped it, or a staff member paid it, but their kindness made me cry.

June 19 2013 at 12:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it's wonderful to know that people still care about others. So often it's dog eat dog and those acts of kindness are almost unheard of. Unless you are in my home town of Columbus, Indiana, of course. People pay it forward here quite often From physicians who donate their time, to grocery stores who donate food, or the kind person in front of you paying for your order at the local McDonald's drive thru. Hats off to Olive Garden and it;s employees.

June 19 2013 at 9:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yelp is famous in the busines for tricking restaurants who bonus managers based on their anonymous 'customer' reviews into paying those underserved bonuses. The Managers get enough of their friends and relatives together, give them false cash register receipts (easily collected from trash bins in the store), and have their fake customers put these receipts into the system. with their great reviews.

June 19 2013 at 8:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

No need to be bitter jimr.

This has EVERYTHING to do with the employee (manager). Corporate cares about numbers and good relations. Restaurant managers (and servers if they have that privilege, most that work for corporate chains don't) comp things all the time. It is at their discretion whether to buy you a dessert for an anniversary/special occasion, or to comp a dish that you took more than a bite out of before you mentioned you didn't like it. And whoever corporate has auditing the restaurant's sales would notice if he was regularly comping meals for no apparent reason.

He stole nothing, and probably got a bonus on his paycheck.
There's a reason he's the manager. lol

March 29 2013 at 11:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This has NOTHING to do with the employee.....other than he ripped Olive Garden off and he actually stole from them. You can't give away what isn't yours.

March 29 2013 at 6:30 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
P Pebbie Bernstein F

in all fairness to olive garden, years ago near DeBary fl we went to an olive garden-their were 8 of us -and they were having problems in the kitchen so we had to wait a long time for our meals which they ended up giving to us for free-so I can easily believe they would have done this for this family

March 29 2013 at 12:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It would be interesting to know if anyone tried to enter the thousand dollar giveaway using the info shown here on the receipt.

March 29 2013 at 10:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to salva1onegiann's comment

This is the internet, I'm sure at least 1,000 people did. :)

April 02 2013 at 8:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What a wonderful thing for them to do. Applause, applause.

March 29 2013 at 10:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don't know why everyone is so surprised, they say when you dine at Olive Garden you are family. I don't insult my family by trying to pay them. So my bill is always $ 0.00.

March 29 2013 at 10:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nice story...very nice employee.

March 29 2013 at 10:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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