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May 30, 2015

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Heart Attack Grill: Health intervention or obesity inducer?

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Sam Morris

The recently opened Heart Attack Grill is seen in the old Jillian’s space at Neonopolis on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011.

The sign outside says it all: “Over 350 lbs eats free.”

The Heart Attack Grill, which offers free meals to customers of a certain girth, opened Wednesday at Neonopolis in downtown Las Vegas. The restaurant can be seen in very different ways: a clever marketing ploy to lure diners with stomachs of steel (or slightly twisted senses of humor), or the latest salvo in a war against healthy living.

The theme of the fast-food joint isn’t exactly subtle. The restaurant looks like a hospital, customers are “patients,” waitresses are “nurses,” and food orders are “prescriptions.”

The calorie count of menu items is stratospheric. Burgers come in sizes that range from the “single bypass” (one patty with cheese and toppings) to the 8,000-calorie “quadruple bypass” (four patties with four slices of cheese and all the fixings). Fries are cooked in pure lard and dubbed “flatliner fries.” The milkshakes are touted to have the highest butter fat content in the world. The restaurant also sells beer, soda, candy and no-filter cigarettes.

“The Heart Attack Grill diet is not for everyone,” a telephone recording at the restaurant warns. “Side effects may include sudden weight gain, repeated increase in 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. In some cases, mild death may occur.”

Customers who finish quadruple bypass burgers earn the honor of being pushed to their cars in wheelchairs. Thursday, hamburgers cooking on the grill kicked off so much fat the equipment caught fire.

“What better place to have such a gluttonous restaurant than in Sin City?” mused owner Jon Basso, who goes by the name “Dr. Jon.”

The first Heart Attack Grill opened in 2005 near Phoenix and was met with much criticism. Arizona’s attorney general threatened to close it in 2006, saying Basso was in violation of a state law allowing only people with valid nursing licenses to be called nurses. Basso was arrested after saying he’d release a fire hose on a group of picketing health care providers.

The grill’s spokesman, 29-year-old Blair River, who stood 6-foot-8 inches tall and weighed 575 pounds, died in March of pneumonia, and the original Arizona location closed in May. That same month a second grill opened in Dallas. It also was met with protesters — and a line of customers.

Basso understands the criticism and welcomes it.

“You’re intelligent if you don’t eat our food,” he said Thursday. “If people pondered what I’m doing, they’d realize I’m creating a mockery of this. When you hop on that scale and you’re 350 pounds and we give you a free burger and people cheer, what’s really going on? We’re singling you out as a freak. On the one hand, I could try to defend myself ethically and call myself a crusader that’s trying to wake up America and conduct an intervention on obesity. That’s half true. The other half is I’m an entrepreneur trying to make a buck, plain and simple.”

Basso stopped, thought for a minute, then added: “The only thing I can say in my defense is: If you compare me to Burger King and McDonald’s, I’m honest and they aren’t. It says right on my door: ‘Caution, bad for your health.’”

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