The Heart Attack Grill: Remembering Blair River

It's been over a month and you have probably already forgotten about the death of Blair River, the 575-pound spokesperson for the Heart Attack Grill. His death is disturbing, first and foremost because this young man was only 29 years old. He lived a scant 11 years as an adult and this kind of story always makes my heart ache.

There was a tremendous amount of press surrounding Mr. River's death because of his role as a morbidly obese man pitching a restaurant that profiteers from today's tremendous problem with weight gain in America. Founded by Jon Basso, who uses the moniker "Dr. Jon," the Heart Attack Grill is a restaurant that serves burgers and fries with no limit on the calories, fat or salt. The specialty of the house is the Bypass Burger -- single through quadruple versions. The Quadruple Bypass Burger allegedly contains over 8,000 calories (a claim that I don't see supported by the description on their menu).

This young man didn't succumb to a heart attack or another disease that we normally associate with obesity. Rather, it is said that he died from complications related to influenza and pneumonia. While not the sort of thing that you think of as an illness of obesity, the fact is that being obese makes it about 4 times as likely that you will die after contracting influenza.

"Dr. Jon" has taken some licks in the media since opening his restaurant, but I am here to say that I admire him. What's that? Did I say admire?

Yes -- but not for his silly restaurant and certainly not for what appears to me to be unabashed greed. No, I admire him for his honesty. Sure, it's bizarre to create a restaurant such as this and irresponsible to offer free food to those weighing over 350 pounds. Mr. Basso is totally unabashed about promoting his restaurant as "nutritional pornography" and "so bad for you it's shocking." But, at least he admits it. At least patrons know what they are getting into when they walk through the door.

Compare this with Chili's Bar and Grill. Not in a million years would they would never admit that their food is "nutritional pornography." Yet their food is just as a bad for you as that found at the Heart Attack Grill. An example from their online nutrition information: a 1/2 order of their Texas Cheese Fries with Ranch dressing has 1,280 calories, 40 grams of saturated fat and 3,300 milligrams of sodium. A half order! A Souhern Smokehouse Burger with Ancho Chili BBQ sauce at 2,290 and 46 grams of saturated fat. But, of course, it's not just calories or saturated fat. The amount of salt in their seemingly healthy Cobb Salad borders on the absurd at 1,050 milligrams of sodium while their Quesadilla Explosion Salad has just about one full teaspoon of salt (2,360 milligrams). Try adding that much salt to your salad and see if you can actually eat it.

It's not just Chili's. Denny's, Applebee's, Chevy's and P.F. Chang's in the same chain restaurant category (along with many others), and the fast food restaurants aren't any better. Yet none of these will admit to being "so bad for you it's shocking" even though they are just that.

In this excerpt from an ABC interview Mr. Basso attempts to glorify his position:

Before owning the grill, Basso owned a Jenny Craig franchise and a fitness center, and says that despite pouring "his heart and soul into the diet and exercise industry," he didn't feel like he was reaching anyone. "I'm making more inroads now into people's consciousness by working the other side," he says.

This is patently absurd. In my opinion the Heart Attack Grill doesn't make any inroads into or advance the debate on obesity. It simply serves up junk food and glorifies excess for the purpose of making money. That's not a noble cause and nothing he can say makes it one, but at least he admits to offering junk to his patrons, which is more than one can say for the executives of Chili's, KFC and McDonald's.

I had almost forgotten about Mr. River myself, until I saw a recent remark made by the chief marketing officer of McDonalds, Neil Golden. In a recent lecture given at Tulane University titled "Building Brand Trust: Shifting Perceptions," he said, "The reality is that it's outstanding food." This sort of doublespeak would make George Orwell proud. McDonald's doesn't make outstanding food. They create and sell highly processed, nutritionally incomplete food that's calorie dense, contains excess salt and sugar and very little fiber.

Mr. Golden went on in his remarks to say that the "commitment we have to quality within the organization is arguably better than any other food service establishment in the world." At least Mr. Basso is honest with his customers, while Mr. Golden's mission is spin -- putting the best face on a bad product. McDonald's food is not better than any other food establishment in the world. Far from it.

I understand that successful businesses "give the people what they want." Jon Basso does that at The Heart Attack Grill. He is, however, honest about what he is selling and doesn't put any spin on the message other than "this food is bad for you."

We should certainly feel grief for Blair River, his family and friends -- including Mr. Basso and his staff. We should not, however, see purveyors of food such as sold at the Heart Attack Grill or McDonald's in a benevolent light. There's simply no way to think of that mission as honorable.