The Biggest Scandals To Ever Hit The Heart Attack Grill

At the Heart Attack Grill, the menu is designed to plug your arteries with fat (via Las Vegas Sun). Their shakes are so thick that even quarter percent more fat would turn it into a blob of butter in the ice cream machine (via ABC News). Drink it daily, and you are guaranteed to expand your girth. But the shakes and the "Flatliner fries" are only the sides; the main pull of the restaurant are its array of burgers which sometimes have eight lard-laden beef patties in them. If you just belched reading that, you are excused.

The restaurant's menu is a killer in its literal sense; but what will have you shift uncomfortably in your chair is that the restaurant has the stats, and the cremated remains of a dead customer to prove it. Since its opening in 2006 in Chandler, Arizona, the restaurant has been wriggling in a sea of scandals. Some have called it the "downfall of western civilization," and some have asked it to declare "moral bankruptcy." But the funny thing is, the restaurant has made a name for itself by turning death into a joke. What's even funnier is the fact that the man who runs it, Jon Basso, was in fitness business before starting the glutton-embracing restaurant as an alternative way of pushing people to be fit. Sounds scandalous? Read on, because we are just getting started.

The restaurant was called out for sexualizing the nurse uniform

"Nurses" waiting tables at the Heart Attack Grill are dressed in cleavage-baring translucent clothes and high heels. Besides serving customers their fatty burgers and sugary sodas, they are expected to spank those who don't finish their meal with a paddle. While some customers love it enough to request a spanking even if their plate is swept clean (via Vice), there is a whole set of professionals who take offense to it.

The "sexy nurse" stereotype has ailed the nursing profession for a while, and the Heart Attack Grill is sadly propagating it — which some nursing groups took exception to. When the restaurant first opened in Arizona, some nursing organizations called it an insult to their profession (via The Denver Post). They lodged complaints with the Arizona Attorney General's office, urging the owner of the restaurant, Jon Basso, to change the demeaning dress code that contributes negatively to how the actual nurses, in general, are seen by the public. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, told The Guardian that they "hear from female nurses who are experiencing sexual harassment, in part due to this stereotype that reduces them to sex objects."

Basso, impervious to these concerns, said, "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."

They were defying the law by calling their unlicensed staff nurses

In the Heart Attack Grill, you don't call a waitress to place your order, but you call a "nurse" to write you a "prescription." Though the analogy keeps up with the medical theme that the restaurant has going on, little did the owner Jon Basso know that you can't slap the designation of "nurse" on anyone you please. Only those who hold an active nursing license can be called "nurses." And that's a law in the state of Arizona (via The Denver Post).

After the state board of Nursing complained about the restaurant's careless use of the word "nurse" to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, a letter was sent out to Basso telling him to stop calling his waitresses that — else, they would shutter the restaurant (via Las Vegas Sun). Basso made some noise about his right to free speech, and kickstarted a debate on the internet to gather supporters (via Entrepreneur). But things got a little out of hand when he threatened to attack healthcare providers with a fire hose, and was arrested.

Phew, the long winding drama finally ended with Basso adding a tiny asterisk next to the word "nurse" on the restaurant website. He also added a disclaimer that the word "nurse" was used as a parody (via The Denver Post). While the scandal sat as a mustard stain on the restaurant's name, for Basso, though, it was pure fodder for business.

Some had issues with the restaurant glorifying obesity

As per a former employee's Reddit post, the medically themed restaurant has customers step on a stage that sounds an alarm if they weigh over 350 pounds — signaling a round of applause and free burgers their way. In the restaurant's ads, they reduced the side-effects of eating their high-fat food into a cheeky two-liner that said it "may include sudden weight gain, repeated increase of wardrobe size, back pain, male breast growth, loss of sexual partners, lung cancer, tooth decay, liver sclerosis, stroke, and an inability to see your penis" (via The Globe and Mail).

While the marketing technique brought in business, it didn't sit well with some like Sarah Parsons who filed an online petition in 2010 asking the restaurant to stop perpetuating obesity. She wrote: "More than 64% of American adults are overweight or obese. It's a public health crisis that's reached epidemic proportions, and everyone from doctors to government officials to non-profits have been working round-the-clock to come up with solutions." She blamed the Heart Attack Grill for "undermining these efforts," and urged consumers to tell Basso to stop giving away those free burgers to 350 pounds-over customers.

Basso, however, believes that he is doing something noble — spreading awareness about obesity, albeit in an unconventional way. "I do more to combat the obesity epidemic than any other individual in the country, including the Surgeon General," he claimed (via Yahoo! Life).

Their Dallas location opening saw some protests

By the time the Heart Attack Grill opened its Dallas branch in 2011, the news about the shockingly unhealthy menu that it served in its first location in Arizona was well-known. Some Dallas residents were irked by the fact that their neighborhood eatery would be a chain that encourages obesity. Referring to the restaurant's "free food for customers over 350 pounds" policy, Laurel Wright, a weight loss advocate, said, "You don't have to be encouraged or get praise for weighing 350 pounds." She was among those protesting the restaurant's opening in downtown Dallas by distributing apples and pamphlets about healthy eating across the street (via D Magazine). "Obesity is a huge problem. You feel like you have no hope ... I think the message that restaurant [Heart Attack Grill] is giving obese people is disgusting," said Wright.

However, the Dallas location was short-lived, shutting its doors within four months of its launch because of rent issues (via NBC DFW). The previous location in Chandler, Arizona, also closed its doors mysteriously in 2011, and all that was let known was that the founder was in dispute with the city about the restaurant's color of paint (via Phoenix New Times). Bizarre? It gets worse.

The spokesperson of Heart Attack Grill died at the age of 29

For the restaurant that sells "burgers to die for," the death of its spokesperson in 2011 was proof of what they preached. The restaurant's 29-year-old spokesperson, who weighed 575 pounds, died because of flu-related complications a year after he had started promoting the ginormous burgers at the restaurant.

As per ABC News, Blair River was first diagnosed with flu, which worsened and led to pneumonia and death. The Heart Attack Grill founder, Jon Basso, while continuing to serve a scarily high fat menu, blamed obesity for the young man's death. Basso said, "... Had he been thin, he would have had a tenfold opportunity to survive the pneumonia." Ironic much, since Basso's restaurant meals were very much part of River's diet. Though River was three times his ideal weight, and doctors urged him to lose weight, he considered himself healthy (via ABC News). But obesity, as some studies have shown, dampens the chances of recovery from flu. 

The death of an employee did not move Basso to revise his menu. He said, "We are absolutely guilty of glorifying obesity. That's what I do for a living: I make a mockery of heart-related issues in order to sell hamburgers."

The restaurant's second spokesman died of a heart attack

The restaurant's name "Heart Attack Grill" became an uncomfortable truth after its second spokesperson, though unofficial, died of a heart attack. John Alleman passed out right in front of the diner on Las Vegas Boulevard, while waiting at the bus stop (via Las Vegas Sun).

Unlike the restaurant's previous spokesperson, who was obese, Alleman weighed only 180 pounds. Having said that, he was at a higher risk of a heart attack as "he had a genetic predisposition for cardiac problems," according to the owner of the restaurant Jon Basso, who cited both of Alleman's parents as having died from heart attacks. As per a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, Alleman likely could have mitigated the risk by adopting a healthy diet, among other lifestyle changes (via UCI Health). Sadly, Alleman's diet was probably far from healthy, given he was a regular at the Heart Attack Grill. 

"He never missed a day, even on Christmas," said Basso. "He lived, ate and breathed the Heart Attack Grill," he added. While Basso did acknowledge that the restaurant's unofficial mascot's death was a "wake-up call," it wouldn't stop them from selling their 5,000-plus-calorie burgers.

A customer suffered a heart attack while in the restaurant

The triple bypass burger contains three half-pound beef patties cooked in lard, with a topping of chili, onion, tomato, and cheese (funnily, this 6,000-calorie meal is one of the low-calorie ones on the menu — one burger even has a whopping 20,000 calories packed in it). A 40-something customer who was noshing on the triple-patty burger at the Heart Attack Grill had to be rushed to the hospital after having an apparent heart attack, as reported on Fox News. The paramedics team had to cart him away from the restaurant, which ironically uses wheelchairs to wheel people out as a gimmick. 

Anyhow, the incident had officials of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington DC-based anti-meat advocacy group, express its extreme disapproval of the Vegas eatery. They sent a letter to the owner Jon Basso urging him to shut down the restaurant declaring bankruptcy of a unique kind, "moral bankruptcy." To this, Basso said a hard "no," while also defending his restaurant as a place where people can be themselves without being judged for what they eat or weigh. He also went a little further and said it was not him but the doctors who are to be blamed for America's obesity epidemic. 

Neither this incident — nor the one a couple of months after, where another customer suffered from a similar medical issue while having a double bypass burger, per Last Vegas Sun – led to any alteration of the menu.

The owner carried the cremated remains of a customer who had died at the restaurant to an interview

The owner of the Heart Attack Grill, Jon Basso, has built a business around the fatality of eating extreme junk food. While he has never held back from saying that his food can kill, in 2013 he went a step further by showing up at an interview with the cremated remains of a customer who had died of a heart attack at his restaurant (via Time). He placed the clear bag of ash on the table during the interview on Bloomberg's "In The Loop" show, saying, "I wish that Burger King, McDonald's, and everyone else would do the same thing."

Basso calls himself a performance artist who is simply using a shocking way to spread awareness about obesity. He told Yahoo! Life, "I'm the luckiest guy in the world, because I'm able to be an artist. ... Burgers are just the price of the ticket for the show." He added, "For every Alleman [the restaurant's spokesman who died because of a heart attack] who dies, we can hopefully help 10,000." Basso says he looks forward to the day when his restaurant would have no visitors. But in the meanwhile, as he told Bloomberg, "I make good money joking about how bad my food is ..." Only death is no joke, as the show's anchor pointed out.

A former employee called the place unprofessional

A former employee told Reddit that the work environment was "unorthodox, unprofessional and chaotic." As per her posts, the waitresses are asked to dress in skimpy nurse uniforms, and are talked down to by customers. She wrote, "Our uniforms were provocative, therefore in their minds we were all brainless." According to an active employee's account on Vice, spanking customers who don't finish their meal can get awkward; in one case, the customer used it as an excuse to make inappropriate advances at her.

Then there is that underlying feeling of guilt about contributing to the unhealthy lifestyle. "... everyday we would have 5-10 people come in who actually qualify for the free meal. And that's when I would feel bad about contributing to their bad health," said the ex-worker on Reddit; "I've called an ambulance three times for customers who've had coronaries," said the anonymous worker via Vice, feeling bad that she "... served the guy this food and it's killed him." 

The former waitress recalled yet another incident where she was asked to film a guy who had passed out at their restaurant. "We had to call an ambulance. 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. It was on a Friday afternoon, and he hoped it would make the news so they could have a busy weekend," she said (via Reddit).

The owner was sued for sexual harassment

While already wading through a mire of controversies, another scandal that hit the Heart Attack Grill was a sexual harassment lawsuit against the owner Jon Basso. A former employee at the restaurant, Jaimee Lee, accused Basso of sending her a nude photo and some inappropriate texts. As per KTNC Las Vegas, Lee, who had joined the restaurant in 2011, was repeatedly pressured by the restaurant owner to return his feelings for her. When she didn't, he resorted to yelling and crying.

The former employee said that quitting was also not an option for her, as Basso wouldn't allow it. He reportedly said that he was a "jealous sociopath" and even threatened legal action against the employee. As per the lawsuit, Basso had said, "As a further COURTESY, in case you are not thinking clearly, you are under contractual obligation not to make any adverse public or private statements against the company or myself" (via Review Journal).

According to the lawsuit, Lee was fired from the restaurant — which, as it turns out, never had an HR Department — after rebuffing Basso's advances. According to Pace Monitor, the lawsuit was eventually settled out of court in April 2020.