Truth in advertising may seem like a rarity these days, but Heart Attack Grill proudly wears it on its greasy sleeves. Whether the Vegas restaurant’s openness about how unhealthy its food is a good or bad thing is certainly a subject for debate, but there’s one thing everyone can agree with: the nearly 10,000 calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger is as artery-clogging as it claims.
While visiting Las Vegas last month, I found myself outside of the Heart Attack Grill and, having never heard of it before, was perplexed. Neon lights declared that “OVER 350 LBS EATS FREE” and I figured it had to be a joke. As it turned out, however, there was a scale outside so people could publicly weigh themselves before entering the restaurant.
Two panhandlers had assumed the role of carnival barkers and were encouraging passersby to get on the scale so they could guess their weights for tips. They clearly had been playing this game a while because they were remarkably accurate. Initially they were five pounds off on my friend’s weight, but then they yelled at her to put her purse down first and their estimate turned out to be correct within a pound.
The weight game was just one part of the spectacle that was the Heart Attack Grill. The waitresses worse sexy nurse outfits, the customers were draped in hospital gowns and a number of signs warned that eating here may result in your death. I walked away thoroughly disgusted, dismissing the restaurant as “very Vegas” – a place where people indulge in excess and bad behaviors as a form of escapism.
Back at home, however, my opinion on the Heart Attack Grill changed after seeing a Bloomberg Television interview with the owner, Jon Basso.
With a name like Heart Attack Grill, you certainly can’t accuse Basso of concealing how unhealthy his meals are. “I’m probably the only restaurateur in the entire world who is unapologetically telling the world that my food is bad for you, that it will kill you, and that you should stay away from it,” Basso says.
He’s not exaggerating the health consequences, either. Already, two of Heart Attack Grill’s morbidly obese spokespeople have died. One of them actually died while dining in the restaurant, and Basso will gladly show you his now cremated patron’s ashes as proof.
Basso wants credit for his honesty and I – with admittedly a little hesitation – am willing to give it to him. He’s right when he points out that that most fast food restaurants keep trying to rebrand their products as part of a healthy lifestyle. With misleading commercials and salads often with more calories than the cheeseburgers themselves, most fast food restaurants are deceptive about what they’re serving. “If you’re going to conduct ethical business in the United States, you don’t mask what it is you’re serving,” Basso says.
Despite his honesty, I don’t believe that Basso deserves to be exonerated entirely. Surely he bears some responsibility in contributing to the obesity epidemic with his restaurant. By making it into a rebellious challenge of sorts, Heart Attack Grill practically turns overeating into an accomplishment. Additionally, it’s one of the flaws of capitalism that Basso has decided to profit from an industry he clearly despises.
Nonetheless, the message of the Heart Attack Grill might make it more valuable than harmful overall. In that sense, the restaurant serves as a sort of public art exhibit. It’s a place that both displays and parodies the health consequences of similar dining establishments. If customers still decide to make bad decisions by eating there, at least they’re informed bad decisions.
Looking back, I think what made me feel the most uncomfortable about Heart Attack Grill was how in-your-face it is. With a different name and marketing scheme, I can’t even promise I wouldn’t have eaten there. Considering I went to an all-you-can-eat buffet an hour after passing by Heart Attack Grill, clearly I wasn’t in the mindset of making healthy choices. If the buffet featured signs that would have grossed me out, I probably would have thought twice about eating there, as well.
Although I had initially dismissed the restaurant as “very Vegas,” it’s wrong to miss it as a critique of a nationwide obesity epidemic. While Heart Attack Grill definitely isn’t the solution to this American problem, I do like what it’s adding to the conversation.
Photo Credit: Steven Damron