It was meant to be a heartwarming story, proof that there are still plenty of good people in this world. But, instead of chiming in with inspirational examples of their own, Reddit users started picking it apart.
"My brother, wife, 3-year-old daughter and I went to Olive Garden after a recent house fire at my parents," Reddit user Tanek42 wrote on Tuesday. "When the manager asked how everything was, my daughter said, 'Grandpa's house burned down.' Here's how we received the check." He included a picture of the check, with every item comped and a total balance due of $0.00.
While a few people responded with kudos for the restaurant's manager, most were skeptical about Tanek42's story.
"Why does it say "Duplicate Receipt - Stored Order" at the bottom? Is this an indication that this is a copy of the receipt, and it may be the manager posting this?" asked one user. Others pointed out that the Olive Garden logo was a little too perfectly placed, and wondered about the restaurant's ulterior motives.
"I used to manage another national chain and would frequently comp meals for people for no other reason than to promote goodwill," wrote "lukaro." "We were actually encouraged to do so."
As people tried to puzzle it out, one Reddit user offered up a theory.
"OP [original poster] probably works for a company called Grey Worldwide, which is OG's advertising agency. Someone probably thought this idea up last week and they did some data analysis to see the perfect time to get upvotes—and had a bunch of Grey employees upvote as well," wrote "iworkinadvertising," who called himself (or herself) a journalist who covers advertising. "This is basically free advertising. It screws Redditors over by blurring the line between what's real and what's advertising, and it screws Reddit over by circumventing them for free advertising."
The image—and the outrage—quickly went viral, prompting Olive Garden's parent company, Darden, to defend itself and its customers.
"The receipt is real and was posted by the guests, not by anyone at Olive Garden or Darden," Tara Gray, media and communication manager for Darden, told Yahoo! Shine in an email on Wednesday. "We are always looking for ways to surprise and delight our guests, and this was one of the ways the Olive Garden team in Vernon Hills, Ill., did that last weekend."
Darden's marketing firm, Grey Worldwide, also denied they played a part in the posting.
"Grey had absolutely nothing to do with post concerning Olive Garden," a representative told Consumerist. "It would be against our code of conduct."
This isn't the first time that the restaurant's staff has committed a random act of kindness. Earlier this month in Lubbock, Texas, an Olive Garden employee picked up the tab for a soldier who was being deployed the next day.
"I didn't do it for any recognition," Dawn Ward told local news site EverythingLubbock.com. "I did it because it is the right thing to do."
But sometimes, a good deed gets so much attention that cynical readers can't help but wonder if the kindness was a staged PR stunt. Instead of positive press, a free meal can garner a social media backlash—for the company as well as the customer.
When Tanek42 checked his post Wednesday morning, he was amazed at the amount of criticism he had received. He included a link to a newspaper report about the fire at his parents' house, and offered up more details about his night.
"At Olive Garden, we were talking to my brother about the fire when the manager stopped by," he explained. "He asked how everything was and my daughter blurted out 'Grandpa's house burned down'. He asked what she just said, and she repeated herself. He asked a couple of details like where it happened, when, and if my family had somewhere to stay. I did not expect the bill to get paid, but it was very nice of them!"
Tanek42 laughs at users who still say he's a marketing maven for the restaurant. "I wish they paid me!" he posted Wednesday afternoon. "I do love Olive Garden, but I don't work for them. My story is real, sorry to disappoint the mob!"
Also on Shine:
Paying It Forward, Jayden Style: Random Acts of Kindness in Honor of a Little Boy
The Most Inspirational Stories on Yahoo! Shine
Olive Garden Critic's Tips on How to Review a Restaurant