The untold truth of Heart Attack Grill

Ah, Las Vegas. It's not called Sin City for nothing! You can definitely find all kinds of sinful behavior on offer there, but if you're heading to Vegas looking for some good, old fashioned gluttony, the Heart Attack Grill has you covered.

So what, exactly, is this place? It's essentially a burger joint that prides itself on offering some of the most horrible-for-you food in the country. Burgers are called Bypass Burgers, and you can order anything from a Single and a Double all the way up to the Octuple Bypass Burger. Waitresses are dressed as sexy nurses, and if you don't eat all your food, they'll bend you over in the middle of the restaurant and administer some spankings.

Really. We couldn't make this up.

The entire place is designed around a medical theme. You might just get pushed around in a wheelchair, and in order to eat there, you'll have to don one of their medical gowns. Yes, it really is as unhealthy as they claim and yes, people have collapsed while gorging themselves on grease-bomb burgers. Brilliant marketing, a message about the dangers of obesity, or shameless exploitation? You decide. This is the untold truth of Heart Attack Grill. 

Here's how the Heart Attack Grill came about

The Heart Attack Grill officially opened in 2006, and it wasn't always in Las Vegas — it started out in nearby Tempe, Arizona. The mastermind behind the concept is Jon Basso — who goes by "Dr. Jon, chief surgeon" when he's talking about his culinary creation (and no, ABC News confirms that he's not a real doctor). According to Entrepreneur, he didn't actually come up with the idea for the grill when he was looking for his great money-making idea — he wrote about it as a part of his marketing thesis.

The entire idea was built around controversy; Basso himself says, "I tell everybody, 'Don't come here every day of the week; it'll kill you.'"

When the marketing thesis turned into reality, it was a burger joint serving up 8,000-calorie burgers and not just any old fries, but fries cooked in lard. At a time when many people were getting more health-conscious and the obesity crisis in America was getting more and more attention, a restaurant that advertised they had a "taste worth dying for" was, of course, just as controversial as he'd hoped. Consequently, he and his restaurant made national headlines... even though that aside from his web site, he's never spent any money on advertising.

The owner of Heart Attack Grill used to work in weight loss

Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso didn't start out as a restaurateur. According to Eater Las Vegas, he started out helping people eat healthy and get in shape. He was a franchisee of Jenny Craig, but it wasn't long before he started to get disillusioned by the whole thing. He said: "You are not being very real with people and by the nature of the fitness industry, it's disgusting because you are promising people things that are outside genetic possibility. [...] Year after year went by and I became more and more jaded and bitter. After a while, I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror because I was a complete fraud..."

Then, he found himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit — a certain fast food chain was suing him (and his In and Out workout studios) for copyright infringement. After fighting for a while, he realized he had no way of winning and got out of the fitness business.

From there, Basso said that he took the opportunity to do something that "would be absolutely honest." He says that he firmly believes that people are predestined to suffer from things like heart attacks and cancer based on what genes they inherited, and he adds that while diet and exercise might contribute a bit to our health, he doesn't think it's the main factor. So, why not gorge yourself on that Quadruple Bypass burger?

The Heart Attack Grill has been associated with many health emergencies

In 2011, the Heart Attack Grill had their own spokesman — the 575-pound Blair River, who was, at the time, 29 years old. In March, ABC News reported that he had passed away after four days in the hospital. Reports said he had succumbed to pneumonia after battling the flu, which Basso described as "tragic."

Fast forward to 2012, and ABC News was once again reporting on a tragedy linked to the Heart Attack Grill. This time, it was an unidentified customer who had suffered an actual heart attack while eating there. He'd been eating a Triple Bypass Burger, and he was taken to a nearby hospital. Just a few months later, they reported another customer collapsed: she had been eating a Double Bypass Burger, smoking cigarettes, and enjoying a margarita. She was unconscious when paramedics arrived, but was taken to the hospital and was said to be "recovering."

Then, in 2013, the Heart Attack Grill's "daily customer and unofficial mascot" John Alleman died after suffering a heart attack and collapsing as he stood at the bus stop in front of the restaurant. According to USA Today, he was the inspiration for the "Patient John" character seen around the restaurant, and Basso's comments speak for themselves: "(Alleman's death) isn't going to stop us from what we're doing." 

Business Insider talked to owner Jon Basso about the disturbing trend, and he told them, "Death equals business at the Heart Attack Grill. Will it please me if other spokesmen die in the future? Absolutely."

The Heart Attack Grill founder says he's just being honest

Over the years, Heart Attack Grill founder Jon Basso has given some very strange interviews. At the heart of them all is his claim that he's just being honest.

When he was on Bloomberg TV in 2013 (via Business Insider), he told the anchor, "I say it boldly: Don't come to my restaurant, it is bad for you and will kill you."

He went on to compare himself to fast food chains like McDonald's, saying, "We all know that burgers and fries and Chicken McNuggets or anything else that corporate fast food chains can throw out at you are absolutely horrible for your health, as is the food I serve. But I am probably the only restaurateur in the world unapologetically telling you my food is bad for you and will kill you and stay away from it." 

He's also talked to Eater about the media coverage he's gotten, and the condemnation from various outlets. According to Basso, he's pushing a "broader [...] message about health and fitness than any other physician in America." His reasoning is that obesity is still a problem in America, in spite of all the work done by the fitness and medical communities. They, he says, "failed in their mission," so "let's take a different approach." He likens it to an intervention, and says that he hopes going to the Heart Attack Grill will be a life-changing experience for customers.

The Heart Attack Grill owner took cremated remains on television

If it seems like The Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso is all talk and bluster, you should know that he's gone pretty far to prove his point about how unhealthy his restaurant is. He's shown the proof in a pretty shocking way.

He was on Bloomberg's In the Loop with Betty Liu (via Time) to talk about his food when he pulled out a clear bag of powder and put it on the desk. What was it? 

He said: "I'm here with the cremated remains of someone who died at my restaurant. He died of a heart attack at my restaurant, and I'm putting the bag clearly on the table. I wish that Burger King, McDonald's, and everyone else would do the same thing."

When the host of the show pointed out how grim things had suddenly gotten, he agreed. "Because the entire fast-food industry is pretty grim," he says.

Heart Attack Grill employees aren't always comfortable working there

The staff at the Heart Attack Grill is also part of the gimmick — waitresses dress as sexy nurses, and spank customers who can't finish what they order. So... what's it really like working there?

One former employee took to Reddit to answer questions, and she had a lot to say.

When one poster wanted to know if the spankings were legit, she said yes —  some waitresses would absolutely hit customers as hard as they could, while some were a little more forgiving. 

Did it ever get uncomfortable? "Sometimes — only if the customer made it creepy," she answered.

The former hostess also said that they had more repeat, regular customers than you might expect: "We'd get a few locals who would come in frequently to take advantage of the free meal." (For weighing over 350 pounds.) 

Some of the comments have since been removed, but according to Fox News, the hostess had some distressing things to add about her experience as a staffer at the Heart Attack Grill. She explained that a male customer passed out and an ambulance had to be called. "A manager made me take out my cell phone to record a video of the whole thing, so they could send it to the media," she said. "It was on a Friday afternoon, and he hoped it would make the news so they could have a busy weekend."

It's not just the food that's controversial at Heart Attack Grill

Surprisingly, it's not just the incredibly unhealthy food that makes the Heart Attack Grill controversial — it's also their portrayal of nurses.

According to Entrepreneur, organizations like the Arizona Board of Nursing and the Center for Nursing Advocacy have taken issue with the waitresses dressed in bosom-bearing nurses' uniforms. In addition to saying it's degrading to the entire profession, they point out it's also troublesome that all the women are nurses while the men are doctors — outdated gender divisions that the medical profession has been working to overcome.

Individual nurses took it seriously, too, appealing to Arizona's attorney general's office to intervene and have owner Jon Basso stop using the uniforms. Basso's response back in 2006 (via The Denver Post) was less-than-understanding: "If anything, I think it glorifies nurses to be thought of as a physically attractive and desirable individual... There's a Faye Dunaway, Florence Nightingale hipness to it. Nobody wants to think of themselves as some old battle ax who changes bedpans for a living."

The state's Board of Nursing also went after Basso for claiming on his web site that his employees were "nurses," when none had any medical training whatsoever. Basso refused to remove the title, and instead added a footnote saying that there were no actual medical personnel on staff, and it was all just a joke.

There's a 20,000-calorie burger at Heart Attack Grill

In 2013, the Heart Attack Grill made it into the Guinness Book of World Records with their Quadruple Bypass Burger. The award? "The world's most calorific burger." It's four half-pound hamburgers, cooked in lard and covered with caramelized onions (that are also cooked in lard), along with eight slices of cheese, mayo, ketchup, and mustard, for a whopping 9,982 calories.

Guinness also notes that customers have the option to turn that burger into the Heart Attack Meal, which means adding fries and a milkshake to boost the total calorie count up to 12,410. 

As if that isn't heart-stopping enough, Newsweek reported that in 2015, they beat their own record with the Octuple Bypass Burger. That monstrosity includes 40 pieces of bacon, chili, cheese, and eight patties. It's about a foot-and-a-half tall, and anyone who managed to eat it would be consuming 19,900 calories. For anyone interested in doing the math, that's the amount of calories most people eat over the course of 10 days.

So, how unhealthy is the rest of the food at Heart Attack Grill?

Surprisingly, there's not much out there by way of official calorie counts and fat content for Heart Attack Grill's menu items, but in 2012, International Business Times reported on those who took a crack at figuring out just what they were serving up.

It's just as bad as you might think.

They estimate that the Triple Bypass Burger has about 6,000 calories, but at the same time, they note that it's tough to determine just how bad these burgers are. The problem is the burgers are not only cooked in lard, but toppings like bacon are also cooked in lard. Those toppings are not drained or dried before they're piled onto the burger... adding an impossible-to-calculate amount of fat and calories.

Then, there's the Flatliner fries, which are also cooked in pure lard. They're estimated to come with somewhere between 600 and 700 calories, which... sounds surprisingly low for a Heart Attack Grill dish. Not low-calorie by any means are the Butterfat Shakes, which are made from butterfat cream, and come in the standard chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. They also say these calorie counts can vary greatly, and — depending on how they make their shakes — they might be anywhere from 1,600 to 3,000 calories each. Exact numbers might be elusive, but the restaurant is extremely proud to say that the shakes have the highest butterfat content of any food or drink in the world, so... there's that.

Heart Attack Grill has sued a competitor that's also trying to kill customers

As unlikely as it may seem, Heart Attack Grill wasn't the only restaurant that decided their gimmick was going to be killing their customers. According to Eater, there was also the Heart Attack Shack, a more standard sort of burger joint in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Basso and the Heart Attack Grill didn't take lightly to the competition and sued over trademark infringement. At the time, Basso couldn't comment on the lawsuit (although they noted that the only similarity between the two restaurants was the name), and if you're hoping to visit the place that caused all the fuss, we'll have to disappoint: their Yelp says they're closed.

They're not the only ones Jon Basso has sued, either. He's also gone after a Florida eatery called Heart Stoppers Grill (which was also a more family-friendly restaurant than their Las Vegas competitor, and who has also since closed), and NYC's 2nd Avenue Deli. Why sue them? They added an "Instant Heart Attack Sandwich" to their menu. Not only did a federal judge rule in the deli's favor and allow them to keep the sandwich, but since then, they also added a Triple Bypass Sandwich, as well.

Heart Attack Grill has also been sued for sexual harassment

In 2019, Heart Attack Grill founder Jon Basso was in the news for another reason — he was being sued for sexual harassment. According to KTNV Las Vegas, the suit was filed by a former waitress who claimed Basso had sent her nude photos, a slew of "harassing and inappropriate" text messages, subjected her to unwanted comments, and even went as far as having flowers sent to her home. The employee says he also reprimanded her for talking to another man, and showed up at her house to profess his love. Advances, she says, continued over the course of a year, and ended when he fired her — and threatened legal action if she went public.

Strangely, the suit also claims that Basso sent her another photo: he'd thrown a life-sized cardboard cutout of her into the garbage, and labeled it with the message "Where it belongs."

The news outlet said that while they were waiting for a response from Basso, they were also going to publish advice from Dr. Daliah Wachs. According to Dr. Wachs, it's important to minimize contact with a person displaying harassing behaviors, and know when it's time to seek help.

Can the Heart Attack Grill give you a heart attack?

So... what will eating at the Heart Attack Grill really do to you? Can it trigger a heart attack?

Yale University professor of medicine Dr. Harlan Krumholz says (via ABC News), "There is some evidence that a high-fat meal can transiently affect the blood vessels — but little support for the idea that a high-fat meal can trigger a heart attack."

Krumholz goes on to say that yes, while a poor diet over a long period of time contributes to the risk that someone's going to have a heart attack, but there's little to no evidence that a one-time trip to the Heart Attack Grill is going to cause one. 

Everyday Health echoed the sentiment, saying that making a habit of unhealthy foods is definitely a no-no, as it does contribute to risk of heart disease, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol. But once in a while, well, it's not going to kill you. Las Vegas's Mayor Carol Goodman put it this way: "There is nothing wrong with indulging once in a while, as long as you don't go overboard."