Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso with some of the nurses. [Photo: Susan Stapleton]
Jon Basso says he's here to help people live recklessly. A year ago, he moved his Heart Attack Grill from a tiny six-seat outpost in Tempe, Ariz., to downtown Las Vegas inside Neonopolis. And he's been stirring up controversy ever since with his Quadruple Bypass Burger packing a walloping 9,982 calories, lard fat fries and buttercream milkshakes. Here he talks about how he moved from life as a fitness and health expert into the business of high-calorie food, how the media has made him into the villain and how he has been changing lives with his new approach to fitness.
How did the Heart Attack Grill come together?
I was a fitness trainer at the time spent a lifetime involved in diet and exercise stemming from high school and college athletics. When you get out of college you figure I'll pursue my passion, help the world and all those good things. So I owned a chain of Jenny Craig weight loss centers, a chain of personal training studios. I was the owner, operator, janitor, personal trainer, the whole nine yards and for years and years I was playing doctor as a personal trainer pretending I knew much more about the body and so forth. The same thing as a Jenny Craig franchise, I was prescribing diets to people with typically one goal, which was to lose weight. In those positions you attempt to be be overly professional. 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. Give me money and I'll make you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that's not going to happen.
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 who was supporting my family by lying.
And then a very, very fateful thing happened. I got a letter in the mail from a very powerful intellectual property firm in Los Angeles that was suing me because the name of my work out studios was very, very similar to the name of their hamburger chain. I can't really discuss the name of the hamburger chain, but my studios were called the In and Out workout studios. So this unknown group decided to sue me. I couldn't fathom that this was happening because I was the do-gooder, the hero and this was the evil burger empire coming down on me for using common language, an old English expression, in and out, meaning a rapid rate, and I had no intention of selling burger or fries.
And so I proceeded to defend myself in court pro se and a year and a half of back and forth, and finally one of the silver-haired partners of the big firm said, "Jon, I like you, you're interesting, you're funny and you seem to have half a brain. Let's see how smart you really are." He said, "You take out a dollar and I'll take a hundred and we'll take out some matches and we'll start burning and we'll start burning and we'll see who starts getting nervous first."
And I realized this huge corporation that was suing me, there was no way I was going to win, even though I was totally in the right. I was selling health and fitness, and I wasn't trying to impede on their intellectual property. But after a year and half of battling with them, I realized that, OK, I'll sell my gyms, I'll get out of the business. I'll do what they're requesting, but I won't ever stop fighting. I'll enter their industry with a whole different angle, a whole different gimmick.
Instead of being a slimy, crooked, dishonest peddler of health and fitness services, which I was, promising anybody who would pay me any type of miraculous results if they followed my advice and did physical exercise, I would actually launch a hamburger concept that would be absolutely honest.
And that's the only guiding principal. But, huh, that's interesting, so what's the first thing you do? I could call it, like, Valve Blockers. Heart Attack Grill, that's good. So with what little money I had left after fighting this big company, I had a little six-stool place in Tempe, Ariz. I picked up a spatula. And it was just me with one guy in the back doing janitorial duty.
That guy's still with me by the way, seven years later. Seventy-five percent of our people here in Las Vegas have been her since we launched in Las Vegas. When our lease was up in Arizona we relocated. Nine people came up because they believed in the project, the economic feasibility and they believed in the project.
And the project is totally honest, that we gross everyone out, that we shock the world, and we are really very, very fortunate, because we get an incredible amount of media from publications such as your own, television, radio, magazines. They are all interested in a story that makes people chuckle. The reason it makes people chuckle is the ability we have as Americans to laugh at ourselves, and not many countries have the ability to do that.
I can laugh at myself because I'm bald. I make a mockery of myself, a Dr. Evil character and I walk around with lab coat and stethoscope prescribing butterfat shakes. I always carry around the pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes as every doctor should. We promote nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, fat, cholesterol, sodium all the building blocks of a quality, healthy good time.
I'm a firm believer that our health is genetically pre-determined. We're gonna suffer from heart issues, cancer, diabetes, whatever, based on how wisely we selected our grandparents. Now certainly we could exasperate ailments based on poor lifestyle, but really we shouldn't worry about things. Worry and stress, I think worry and stress causes much more of our ills than diet.
If you want to cut to the nutshell, what I couldn't sell to the people in my fitness days, but what's the truth, if you do two things you'll be as healthy as you can possibly be. That is, maintain adequate sleep patterns and keep yourself as hydrated as possible. Through fruits, vegetables, drinking, avoid diuretics like coffee, beer. If you simply stay hydrated and sleep enough you're going to be as healthy as you can be.
A five-foot person is not going to be a seven-foot person and a bald guy isn't going to grow hair. But if we would just do those two things, we would be fine. And we could enjoy our lives.
I don't tell anyone to come to the Heart Attack Grill more often than once a month. I say it right in the door, "Caution this establishment is bad for your health."
The only contempt I have for the whole Heart Attack Grill situation is the way the media treated it. I'm just one little smart-ass. I was in bumfuck nowhere in Arizona. As soon as my lease was up, I moved to Las Vegas and I love it. If the media was as repulsed by me as they claim to be, all they would have to do is ignore, me. But for their own greedy purposes, because they need content, they have opted to take gallons of gasoline and throw it on this one little match, which I was, and now they are making it into a forest fire. And they are doing it for their own greedy gain, saying I'm an evil rotten person, but the fact of the matter is I'm here to absolutely make money. Just like everyone else when they go to work. To make money.
And I don't have a total disregard for my fellow man, of course not, because if you stop and realize it, I put out a broader, far-reaching message about health and fitness than any other physician in America. Period. And I will debate that 'til I'm blue in the face and I think I've won every single debate with every newscaster that I've been on television with concerning that, and they can't deny the fact that my actions, as deviant and perverse as they are, have one net result and that is to shock the world into realizing the ill of their ways.
Two out of three of us is overweight. That's a fact. That statistic alone is proof that the medical and fitness community has failed us in their mission. They still padded their pockets. But they failed in their mission, so all I'm saying is, I too was failing in my fitness mission as a fitness professional. I took people's money. One in a hundred probably changed, the other 99 saw Jon once in a while and got broker and broker.
But the thing is if we've all failed, let's take a different approach. This is like an intervention back in the day when people had a drug or alcohol problem and their family would all crowd in a room, grandma would start waving their finger, you're an alcoholic or you're a drug addict, the person would break down and cry and hopefully that was going to change their life. Well, that's what I'm doing here.
We're steps away from a huge cattle scale and anybody who's over 350 pounds gets on that scale. We applaud them, like the big sumo wrestler they are, treat them like a champ, make them feel good for that moment, give them free food all they want. But these people go home at night and they ponder that and say, "Wow, why did I just get free food and have the whole restaurant applauding for me? Because I'm a freak." Plain and simple.
I set that weight at 350 pounds because I don't care how tall you are, how muscular you are, if you are 350 pounds you have too much body fat on you and you need to do something and do it in a hurry. So I'm running an obesity intervention and I think it works. I really do. Everybody should check out our Facebook and see a lot of people say, "Hey, Dr. Jon, I've lost 82 pounds since the last time I was in." It's the X factor, something that snapped in that person that said, "Wow, I'm going to make a change in my life." And they did. And that's fabulous. Now I'm getting paid to do something honest, whereas before I was getting paid to do something dishonest. I feel better about myself.
People say, "Jon, how do you sleep at night?" Well, I don't drink coffee. I sleep well. I'm making money and I'm being honest and I think I have more benefit than a detriment to society.
And my employees love it. They are having a good time I'm providing jobs for people. I don't think we are doing anything wrong for the economy. And actually you are right now sitting in the mecca, downtown Las Vegas. It's still look a little rough around the edges, but it is changing fast. There are wonderful big companies, Zappos is one of them, that are coming into downtown and making a difference. I think you'll see a a completely different downtown in a couple of years.
You can't completely manufacture history. The original Las Vegas is here. It's blue collar, but I like it this way. I honestly think the restaurant would fail if we nestled into the Bellagio. Our crowd enjoys big hamburgers.
What changes did you have to make to the space?
This was a restaurant/nightclub for many big operations in Neonopolis. We just did some construction, added some bathrooms, put up our own obnoxious artwork. It's been working for us quite well.
I don't think of ourselves as fine cuisine. I think of ourselves as fine experience. Our experience is almost unrivaled. I really don't think you could find another non-stop costume party. We serve the ubiquitous commodity. Ninety-six percent of the world eats hamburgers.
What was the menu testing process like?
Originally this was made with a spatula. The concept was single, double, triple bypass burgers and that was it. There was really nothing else to the menu. There were no other employees until people starting coming in. It's a lot like the fable of stone soup. I'm a lot like the person who was stirring the rock in the hot water while the villagers came by and said, "What's that?" And I said. "Stone soup." "It could really do with some carrots, some beets and some other things."
Every single idea that's some here was not my own. I was just the person who was nuts enough to try it. Wearing hospital gowns was someone else's idea. Hiring attractive females was someone else's idea. The wheelchair was somebody else's idea. It's evolving. I'm sure the Heart Attack Grill will be a radically different place in a another couple of years.
Do you think guests have embraced the idea behind the restaurant?
One or two people in this room right now are irritated. They are only here because they have been dropped here by someone else. And they are counting the seconds until they can get out. This is an absolute den of iniquity. A complete caloric nightmare. It's very offensive to people. We are trying to be offensive. You'd be a very callous individual if you find nothing on the menu offensive.
I sell candy cigarettes to little kids. It's legal. I'm not breaking the law. The kids want it and I'll sell it to them. Am I spurring on smokers for the next generation? Maybe. I don't know. Do I care? Sure I care. But I'm not going to stop that kid from smoking when he turns 18. But I certainly might be making the first the conversation the kid has about smoking with his parents in the car, when his parents are driving home and his parents try to explain why the other adults were laughing as he smoked a candy cigarette and why cigarettes are a nasty, vile thing.
People have demonized the tobacco industry for a long time. I don't think it's fair in proportionate terms. They're not demonizing soda pop bottlers. Far more damage has come from chain restaurants and soda pop manufacturers, I think, than the tobacco industry.
So as long as everyone has a reasonable warning upfront, I don't see where there's a real problem. I challenge any other business in America to be as painfully honest as I have been. Because I don't buy into the concept of the masses are the asses. Everyone likes to look down their nose at the average Joe Schmoe walking by. See these two women walking by with these huge drink cups? A lot of people might look down their noses as them. They're having fun, they're having a great time. They're in Vegas. That's how it should be. I don't think there's anything that we should restrict ourselves on.
I just think that the general public is a lot more intelligent than we give them credit. I think that people understand when others are being dishonest with them, sugar coating a horrible thing.
I think we do a B-plus hamburger. I don't think it's an A plus and anytime I hear someone say, "The Heart Attack Grill's hamburgers suck," or, "The Heart Attack Grill's hamburgers are an A plus, they're great." They are loathe to delusions. They are giving us that F or A grade based upon how they emotionally interacted with our theme. And that's the truth.
Look, I get my meats from what is considered Las Vegas' finest butcher. I get my buns from Great Buns, which is the most reputed place in town. My guys in the kitchen do nothing but cook hamburgers all day long every day. They're like the zen masters. They're taking the raw products that they have and especially when they saute the onions in lard, it's fabulous. They're taking those raw products and they're building a very good hamburger. A B-plus hamburger. Maybe there are some days when we might get a fleeting A-minus or some days when we really F up in the kitchen and might get a B minus or C plus. I'm just trying to deliver an A-plus experience. Not that that experience is necessarily positive. It's A-plus in its extremity, in the fact that you're going to walk in here and either love the place or you're going to hate the place. The haters to me are just as valuable as those who love it.
Six months in, did anything change?
We haven't changed the menu. We've got a great brownie recipe and I've been thinking about adding that as a dessert or chunking it up in cubes and throwing that in the butterfat shake. We have a fabulous butterfat shake. There's so much cream in it that if I add even a quarter percent more butterfat, it would literally churn to butter and stop the paddles from moving. So it's thick as you can. It's neat because when you're an out of the closet junk food peddler, you just don't have to make apologies. You get to just be a barbarian.
What's the must-order dish of the moment?
The double bypass. We're the home of the double bypass. You don't want to order more than that. I think most people want to order a single bypass but they don't want to be viewed as wimps. The butterfat shake. Our Jell-O shots are great. We do a very, very strong Jell-O shot in syringes.
What's in store for the future?
The Heart Attack Grill won't ever really change in terms of its core offerings. We sell burgers and T-shirts.
There's only one thing wrong with the Heart Attack Grill. I truly believe this. I can count our ingredients on 10 fingers. Ketchup, mustard, bun, meat, cheese, onion, tomato, a potato chopped. I mean this is literally it. We're the perfect business model with a low inventory of no turnover.
Our business model won't change, but I'd like to think that the Heart Attack Grill would expand into another industry. I don't necessarily think this has to propagate itself in the existing industry. I've never been a fan of chains. I really don't to see Heart Attack Grill be a chain. I'd really rather see it branch into another industry, you know, Heart Attack Airlines. I'm just making it up. If you're going to have a theme, which is let's understand the modern health trends are here to stay. They won't go away because this New Year's Day we're not all collectively, not as a nation, but as a globe go on a diet. You're not going to change that culture soon.
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