Joe Downtown: Heart Attack Grill owner flaunts man’s cremains to help people, he says
The video is jarring. Jon Basso watches it intently in his closet-sized office behind the working end of his restaurant, downtown’s Heart Attack Grill.
In it, he talks to a Bloomberg reporter about his eatery. On the footage, Basso offers a simple but unorthodox message: Stay away from his restaurant.
“I’m probably the only restaurateur in the world unapologetically telling you that my food is bad for you and will kill you and stay away from it,” he says.
As the interviewer tries to make a case for an individual's right to choose, pointing out that many fast-food companies offer healthier menu items, Basso lifts up a large plastic bag full of cremains and plops them on the table.
“I can tell you a very quick story, and that is this,” Basso says. “I’m here with the cremated remains of a person who died at my restaurant. ... He died of a heart attack at my restaurant, and I am putting the bag clearly on the table. I wish that Burger King and everyone else will do the same thing.”
The interviewer looks uncomfortable. Basso beams. Many consider him something of a marketing genius.
“I’m no angel,” the 48-year-old former fitness trainer says. “I’m here to make a buck, and I love hamburgers. I love beer. I love nurses. But if I did so without the panache, if this was just “Jon’s Burgers” without the girls, then I’d be a total scumbag for what I’m doing.”
The theme of Heart Attack Grill isn’t 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.
A sign outside the restaurants advertises that customers who weigh more than 350 pounds eat free.
Business is good, Basso says.
Search for "Heart Attack Grill" on YouTube, and you begin to understand why. A mere 11 videos tagged "Heart Attack Grill” have a combined 4 million views.
Nothing is generic when it comes to the restaurant.
Nurse-waitresses, for instance, all receive nicknames. There's the Head Nurse and the Beater — Rikki Ogawa — who paddles customers who don't finish their hamburgers. Lola, aka Lorren Cackowski, is a little person. She calls herself “fun-sized.”
“It’s a circus here, and having a fun-sized person is part of it,” Basso says. “Unlike Hooters that tries to (hire) the sexiest girl possible, my people are all fun, interesting people.”
One of those people was John Alleman, the man whose ashes are in the bag Basso unveils on TV.
Alleman was a restaurant spokesman. His real job was as a security guard, but he came to the Grill almost every day. He was such a regular that the restaurant’s menu features a caricature of him, along with Basso and the rest of the staff.
Alleman died in February at age 52 of a heart attack at the bus stop at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard just outside Heart Attack Grill. The news, although unwanted, was another marketing coup for Basso, as word of Alleman's death spread like a grease fire around the world.
Basso now keeps Alleman's ashes in a box on a shelf in his restaurant. They’ll stay there as long as the restaurant does, Basso says.
“Is it ethical to keep his remains here?" Basso asked. "Yeah, because I don’t know where to spread them out. He never told me that he loved Red Rock or anything. But he did tell me that he loved the Heart Attack Grill and wanted to be there forever. And now he literally is. I only take him out of his box for media appearances.”
Heart Attack Grill attracts lots of large customers.
On Tuesday night, a man weighing more than 300 pounds climbed onto the restaurant's scale, to the cheers of customers.
But Basso says the cheers can be deceptive. People get on the scale and lift their arms in triumph, but from the letters he receives, overweight customers sometimes take a different view of themselves.
“I get emails all the time from people who say, ‘Dr. Jon, I used to be 425 pounds, and now I’m 325 pounds. People clapped when I got on that scale,’” he says. “I think at some point they look at themselves and say, 'I used to be a normal-sized kid,' and they wonder, how did I get from being that normal kid to this?"
Basso maintains that he is helping the cause for public health.
“Somebody’s got to care for them," Basso says. "And I do. McDonald’s and Burger King don’t care for them. Sometimes I have to get in the guy's face and laugh at him about being fat, without them punching me, because it’s all in good fun and humor. But it’s my responsibility to get in their faces."
“Am I a fitness crusader? No. I sell food for thought. That’s why everyone in here wears a hospital gown. It's to drive home the fact that you’re eating crap and will end up in a hospital unless.”
Later that night, Basso hosts the first of what could become a weekly “Big, Beautiful Woman Dating Game,” his take on the popular show from the ’60s and ’70s. It is hosted by “Miss Appropriate” and “Miss Adventure,” two big, beautiful women who hint of careers in the adult entertainment world. Basso says he held the contest at night so children wouldn't be in the restaurant.
Three woman prepare to answer questions from a man, who can’t see them but will pick one as his date based on her answers.
The contest takes place, but not without several glitches. Two men slated to choose a date fail to show up. Two big, beautiful women also flake out.
So Basso improvised. The one woman who did show up became the question asker. Basso’s restaurant manager and a customer were added to the lineup of men who answered.
The questions included: What’s your best move in the bedroom? Shaven or unshaved? Are you a glass half-full or half-empty?
The customer won. He and his date received $100 to spend at Hennessey’s Tavern, a few feet away from Heart Attack Grill.
In the meantime, Basso continues to bring attention to a restaurant he says would be “just another burger joint” if not for his marketing ideas. He and Alleman’s ashes are slated to make an appearance on an episode of “Nightline,” scheduled to air tonight.
“I’m 48, and I don’t have to cook anymore,” Basso says. “So I’m obsessed with marketing. And how do you stand out? How do you market a burger? I say, let’s tell the truth in such a vicious way that everyone will stand up and take notice. And the registers are ringing. But I’m also showing people they’re not alone in their food addiction. I do care about them.”
Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.