A “Doctor’s” Journey to a Successful Restaurant Startup
The Heart Attack Grill epitomizes everything most people want out of Las Vegas: gluttony and a raunchy good time. When you walk into this aptly named restaurant, one of the first people you’ll encounter is a waitress in a skimpy nurse outfit. Watch out, though: She’ll spank customers with a paddle for not finishing their food.
Here, customers are encouraged to dress in hospital gowns to eat dishes like the Triple Bypass Burger and Flatliner Fries. Shots are served in syringes, and anyone who weighs more than 350 pounds eats for free. The only vegan food here is the cigarettes.
Moving From Failed Gyms to a Successful Restaurant Startup
The restaurant’s website describes Jon Basso, or “Dr. Jon” — the self-proclaimed “chief surgeon” of this operation — as “a non-AMA-recognized physician.”
He came up with the concept for the Heart Attack Grill as a form of protest. “I used to own gymnasiums that specialized in senior-citizen fitness,” Basso says. He lost his gym business as a result of what he calls “bad luck.”
Unemployed with a family to support, Basso was frustrated that his health-boosting business hadn’t survived in a world where artery-clogging restaurants were thriving. In response, he founded the Heart Attack Grill, a restaurant startup that satirized traditional burger chains.
“I never actually intended it to be profitable, as weird as that sounds,” Basso says.
“It was my form of protest against major burger chains. I wanted to exploit them and expose them for what they were, and that suddenly blew up — huge — bigger than I thought.”
Sending a Message
The Heart Attack Grill has been described as “the perfect intersection of horror and comedy,” Basso recalls. The concept is his rather unconventional way of bringing attention to America’s obesity epidemic and the dangers of fast food. He says that after their heart-unhealthy meals, many of his customers leave with something to think about.
“If you actually come in and partake in the Heart Attack Grill experience, you’ll see that not a person leaves without understanding the very serious nature of the junk food choice and what it leads to,” Basso says. “It is a very eye-opening experience.”
“I think I’ve had more success stories at the Heart Attack Grill than I had in any of my weight-loss gymnasium type of businesses. I constantly get letters from people who have lost 100 pounds and refer to me as having been the X factor,” he adds with pride. “That’s what we in the industry call the psychological moment — when people decide to lose the weight and turn their life around. That, and to do everything we possibly can to draw attention to the obesity epidemic, is really important to me.”
The irony of owning a successful hamburger restaurant doesn’t escape Basso: “I had become the people I hated. My business became very profitable, and I was making a fine living due to my intended protest.”
Lessons for Other Entrepreneurs
Basso insists that advocacy should be in the forefront of any entrepreneur’s life. “Money makes business possible, but having a purpose is the reason you want to get up in the morning,” he says. “Figure out something that you’re passionate enough about beyond just money.”
“We all have something we really do care about. I actually am genuinely obsessed about fitness and the obesity epidemic, so this is a very good outlet for me,” Basso says. “I have never told anybody that I never shied away from the money. To me money — and the more of it — is just an indicator of how good my show is.”
Today the Heart Attack Grill’s “chief surgeon” recommends that all entrepreneurs follow whatever their “unique, weird personal goal might be.”
Basso’s unlikely success story proves that entrepreneurship can go far beyond product sales and standard marketing schemes. If you’re a person with a bent for comedy and unconventional business ideas, the world of entrepreneurship has a place for you, too.