On a recent Friday night, the Heart Attack Grill on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street was filled with patients -- make that customers -- dressed in hospital garb, crowding around a giant scale to see if a patron weighed more than 350 pounds.
That's the magic threshold a diner must reach to receive a free, 8,000-calorie quadruple-bypass burger. That's almost as much as 15 Big Macs, for anyone who's counting.
The restaurant promises unhealthy food (the aforementioned burgers, fries cooked in lard, milkshakes topped with butter fat) and a "taste worth dying for," but when a diner reportedly had a cardiac infarction while eating there on Feb. 11, the blogosphere was shocked: Was it a publicity stunt?
If it was, it worked.
Cell-camera footage of the man being taken away by paramedics went viral. Morning news shows weighed in on the issue. An anti-meat advocacy organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, called on Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso to declare "moral bankruptcy" and close the joint.
Less than three weeks later, it's business as usual for Basso, who last year left the Phoenix area for Las Vegas, where the restaurant now anchors the downtown Neonopolis retail complex.
"I will venture to say that, yes, it will help business," Basso said of the publicity storm that swirled around the incident. "I think it turned on as many people as it turned off. We probably lost some customers. We probably also gained customers. There's a bad boy element to it now."
Basso said the media frenzy made up for the hit in name recognition it took when it closed its Arizona and moved to the Neonopolis. Now, the Heart Attack Grill's brand is linked to Sin City, where a "bad boy element" is seen as a marketing plus.
Almost no information about the patient, who was quickly taken to a nearby hospital and is in recovery, has been revealed due to medical privacy laws, but Basso said he was a "reasonably trim" man in his 40s.
"Heart attacks aren't just for the obese or senior citizens," Basso said. "They could happen to anybody."
The Heart Attack Grill is no stranger to controversy. Its 575-pound spokesman, Blair River, died of pneumonia a year ago. The restaurant has been criticized and picketed for its blatant mockery of nutritional standards. But Basso has no plans to shutter his business, which ranked at the top of Google's most-searched terms in the days following the incident.
Michael LaTour, a professor of marketing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said a business should not use incidents like the heart attack in its marketing materials, and should "express concern and hope for recovery."
However, the Heart Attack Grill does live up to its brand promise in delivering "unhealthy, fat-filled, good-tasting food," LaTour said.
"If it was a different kind of place," LaTour said, "there would be perhaps some repercussions on positioning."
Neonopolis owner Rohit Joshi said he expects the publicity to soon die down, but the Heart Attack Grill will continue to draw interest to the Fremont Street Experience and the portion of Neonopolis that faces it.
"We get more photographs taken in front of the space (now) than anytime in the last five years I've been involved (in the Neonopolis)," Joshi said. "Jon Basso is a genius of marketing. I tip my hat to him."