The Interview Issue: Heart Attack Grill and Greens and Proteins owners talk nutritional porn and eating right

Jon Basso, left, and Jon Kinney, right, the owners of the Heart Attack Grill and Greens and Proteins, discuss their restaurants while the Weekly‘s Ken Miller looks on. To Ken’s right are the ashes of John Alleman, the Heart Attack Grill’s unofficial spokesman who died a few years ago.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Some health food tastes like sacrifice. The bison cheesesteak at Greens & Proteins tastes like deliciousness.

How would you describe your average customer?

Jon B: The average person who eats at the Heart Attack Grill isn’t an eater. They’re an experience seeker. Are we a restaurant? Are we an entertainment format? Or are we an educational facility? I’d like to think of us as the latter. So our average customer is more of a student than your typical burger-seeker. They may not be aware of that upon traveling here, but they certainly do become that way once they arrive.

Jon K: Our average customer is health-conscious. Sixty percent of our customers come right after the gym, get their protein shake or order one of the build-your-own menus. A lot of vegan customers come in, and they have customers who aren’t vegans, so they know we offer both. Someone can get a vegan platter, or they can get a bison cheese steak. So there’s a wide variety of customers, but everyone focuses on lower calories, eating things that have just a little healthier approach.

What’s the most popular thing on your menu?

Jon K: I would say the bison cheesesteak. I think a lot of people like Philly cheesesteak, and here it’s bison, it’s a leaner cut of meat …

Jon B: Do you get it from Catalina?

Jon K: No, Sysco. I’m not sure exactly where they get it from, but it’s grass-fed 90 percent of its life and the last 10 percent of its life they give it grain just to take away too much of the gaminess so it’s got a good taste.

Jon B: The most popular item on our menu would not be the one which is purchased the most. The one which is purchased the most would be the Single Bypass burger, which is a half-pound burger. The most popular is the Octuple Bypass, a Guinness Book of World Records sandwich.

Jon K: Is that eight slabs of meat?

Jon B: Yes, four pounds.

Jon K: (laughs) Oh my God. Do they get fries if they finish it?

Jon B: No, I openly say anyone who eats it is an idiot.

Jon K: (laughs) That’s awesome!

Jon B: I’m not man enough to eat it myself. I can go about to a double and then I tap out if I try to do any more than that.

What is the most common feedback you get from your customers?

Jon B: That “Gosh, why don’t you franchise, why don’t you expand?” Because they’re thinking in a physical sense, of more locations. We’re more focused on a message, and I really can’t control the message if we expanded. I’m here, and I’m not saying this as a cliché, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I can’t really spread myself thinner to have a second location.

Jon K: Very similar. We get people coming in saying, “When are you coming to Scottsdale?” “When are you coming to Colorado?” We get a lot of requests to move out. We’re trying to perfect the model, because we’ve had people walk in and say, “Hey, I want six of these in California!” but we know that if you just let somebody do that and you don’t keep the proper controls and systems in place, you can ruin the whole brand. We’re not there yet.

Heart Atttack Grill owner Jon Basso: "I want to say that restaurants can never be good for you for any reason."

What do you find is the biggest challenge in your business?

Jon K: Making sure we get the food right for each customer. We get very health-conscious customers that come in and need their food exactly a certain way, and we never say no. But it gets cumbersome in trying to perfect it, especially when we have a line out the door at 12:30. So it’s something we’re trying to figure out, and we never want to be in a situation where we deny a special request.

Jon. B: Ours is the polar opposite. The challenge is how to make the most nutritionally devastating meal for each client. And not to deviate. We don’t accommodate special orders. This isn’t Burger King. You don’t hold the pickle, hold the lettuce. We design everything specifically to give you the maximum caloric experience.

And it’s challenging to do while still maintaining a simple menu, because when you’re an out-of-the-closet nutritional pornographer, it’s really cool, because you don’t have to look over your shoulder and make apologies for yourself anymore.

What is your favorite aspect of this job?

Jon B: When I was a kid, my very first ambition was I wanted to be one of two things. I saw them both on television. I saw a TV evangelist and a professional wrestler. And both of those seemed so cool to me when I was 5 or 6 years old, because both of these guys emotionally captivated their crowd. I thought, “I want to do that someday.” And I got so sick and tired of being out in the audience in left field.

I just decided I want to preach nutrition in the way I choose to. And I’m very fortunate, because we have a very large audience. But I love the job because of the fact that I get to educate and entertain at the same time.

Jon K: When you say “educate,” you’re actually telling them how bad it is for them?

Jon B: [Points to food on menu] That’s pornography. That doesn’t belong in anyone’s stomach for any reason. But you can’t technically define it. You really can’t say when it crosses the line, but most people would say that, “Yes, this has absolutely crossed the line.”

I’m very happy this interview is taking place, because [gesturing at Jon K.] I didn’t think that you would be who you are. I thought that this was going to be some extremist, activist kind of guy … and he’s a nice guy. I’m not offended by you, but I tend to be offended by most people in your industry. Because I view you as enablers. You’re teaching people that restaurants can be good for you. And I want to say that restaurants can never be good for you for any reason.

A chocolate shake at the Heart Attack Grill in downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.

In other words, we all have the opportunity to go buy fruits, vegetables, lean meats in a supermarket and judge the quality of that particular food source, take it home, prepare it under our own guise and brown bag. We’ll save money, we’ll be more healthy. So I’ve always been, I guess, a crusader, if you want to use that word, against anyone who tried to position a restaurant as healthy.

The Heart Attack Grill is simply designed to say, “Yeah, come in. We’re gonna have a great time!” It’s gonna feel really good going down, and you’re going to be miserable the next day, because your blood sugar’s going to shoot up, you’re going to have so much cholesterol in your system. You’re going to be hungover, nicotine alcohol, caffeine … you name it, we’ll do it.

The thing is, I am very offended by the vast majority of health entrepreneurs. I used to be one. I owned a chain of personal training studios. And every morning I woke up and thought, “Do I slit my wrists today, or do I just carry on a bit further?” Suicide wasn’t far from my mind back then. I was just so repulsed by a good person coming to me and saying, “I’ll give you my money if you make me look like Arnold.” Well, as the scumbag entrepreneur, I would take your money and promise I would, and of course I never would. None of us are going to look like Arnold, and I’m not going to grow hair on my head, either. Our health is genetically predetermined, and I don’t think I have to argue that.

Jon K: I think a lot of what you said is fair, and I think if you were to construct your meal at your home, it’s probably 100 percent healthier. But we live in a society where it’s sometimes a single family house or two people are working, they got two kids at soccer …

I’d like to say we’re healthier, but … there’s stuff at our place that’s not healthy. You know what I mean? We have a barbecue chicken pizza, so at the end of the day …

Jon B: I have something that deviates … I have water. We didn’t used to serve water, but people beat me to death and said, “You have to have water.” So I said okay. We all cheat on our theme. But you know, it’s really fun to go all the way and be evil. Everyone loves Dr. Evil, and it’s fun to do that.

Greens and Proteins co-owner Jon Kinney: "I think while a lot of people want to lose weight, when they have to put thought and effort into it, they just get caught up in everything else that's going on in their life, and they go back to their autopilot, which is go to McDonald's or Carl's Jr."

Jon K: I like being able to provide people with a healthy alternative. Whether good or bad, I’m not here to say, we live in a society where people just don’t cook at home as often as they used to. They don’t have time. We’re fast casual, we’re not a restaurant, we don’t have waiters that come. So if you need to swoop in at lunch and you need to get back to work, we give you an opportunity to come and get something healthier. You said you come here, tomorrow you’re going to feel horrible. You drink one of our green shakes, you’re not going to feel horrible. It’s very light. Whether it’s real or perceived, you know, it’s a good feeling. And I like being able to delve into this and try to be as authentic as possible. I understand what you’re saying about some of these other categories. But to me, it’s on top of the healthy part. I like being part of the experience. It’s a challenge every day, touching on the special orders, but even the simple things, like making sure your cashiers greet people when they come in. I grew up in the restaurant business as a busboy and a waiter, and you can take the angriest person and serve them right, they leave in a little better mood. I like being part of that interaction.

How often do you eat at your own restaurant?

Jon K: Daily. Sometimes twice a day.

Jon B: Daily. Sometimes twice a day. That’s the bad thing about this. We have a red velvet cake shake where we take a slice of red velvet cake they make over at Great Buns. And we just take the slice and put vanilla ice cream in. And our vanilla ice cream is high in butterfat as you can actually have before it stops the paddles from churning in the machine, before it turns to butter. So you pour it in together and whip the whole thing up. And that’s my weakness. I could lay off the beer for a while. I could lay off the alcohol for a while. I could lay off anything, but ice cream is my weakness, and that’s something we’re really snobbish about here, is our ice cream.

Most people in American would say they want to eat healthier, but based on your experiences, how do people actually eat?

Jon B: This is really sad, but I think the average person who comes in here actually receives probably a healthier meal than they typically eat elsewhere. And I only say that because really and truly, besides the excess here, there’s very few artificial ingredients in our food. For the most part, we’re serving a very basic meal. When you consider the potato chips and soda pop and junk that these people put in, and how jacked up on caffeine they are most of the day, only to come down with alcohol in the afternoon, and cigarettes, I don’t think that most people are necessarily health seeking or junk food seeking, I think that they just don’t think. And we’re trying to make them think.

The scale behind me, you hop up on it and if you’re 350 pounds you eat for free. And it’s interesting when people sit around and say, “I think I’m 350,” and they actually don’t know. And they get up and go, “Whoo-hoo, I am, I get my free meal!” And we give it to them. But it really makes them ponder. I always say I serve burgers and I serve fries, but mostly I serve food for thought.”

If they get on the scale and come out as a 350-pound person, that is the first step in the process of getting better. If you’re an alcoholic, you’re not going to go to AA until you actually crash your car, get a DUI, lose your job, your wife leaves you and your kids won’t talk to you. Then and only then you’ll go, “Wow, I have a problem.” It’s much more shocking for a woman to come out of the closet than a man. A lot of guys say, “Okay, I’m fat, but I’m still lovable!” Most women won’t do that. And so we really have a lot of growth and healing when people do get up on the scale and acknowledge it in public.

Jon K: (same question) The average American eats very poorly, and this kind of touches back to our question of …

Jon B: No, I meant it. I actually think I’m taking them a bit up. At least they get a little bit of protein in it. Most of it’s just crap!

Jon K Sure. You mentioned people don’t eat at home anymore, and I think one thing you touched on is, people have to think. That’s when they just go to the de facto, they’ll go to McDonald’s, or they’ll go somewhere and they just, they get it. What we’ve tried to develop is an option where you don’t have to think. And it’s a little more healthy. We have a build-your-own menu where you can get a chicken breast, couscous and steamed spinach ...

Jon B: Neat! Right!

Jon K: And you know, without any variation, that there’s nothing added there. We don’t marinate it in anything …

Jon B: Simple ingredients.

Jon K: … and that makes it much better. And so, I think while a lot of people want to lose weight, when they have to put thought and effort into it, they just get caught up in everything else that's going on in their life, and they go back to their autopilot, which is go to McDonald's or Carl's Jr. And as you said, when a 350-pound woman steps on that scale, it's probably like, "Hey, I won!" and then they sit back and go, "Did I really win?"

Jon B: There's something deeper going on. [Jon leaves the table and comes back with a clear plastic bag filled with ashes.] This gentleman usually hangs out in my office, and I thought I'd bring him out. Again, in the fact that we're trying to educate people, some people take the ultimate sacrifice for the cause, and John [Alleman] actually did. He was a regular here, and wasn't a heavy-set guy.

Jon K: Is that a human being's ashes?

Jon B: Yes.

Jon K: (laughs) Oh, good God!

Jon B: His formal box is above the bar, but at night I keep him back in the office in case one of the janitors tries to steal him. He was a regular fellow, 52 years old, his folks died in their late-40s of coronary issues. And he actually had a heart attack here. He wasn't heavy-set, thinner than the three of us. Came in once a day to have a mixed drink and talk with the folks. And he had a massive heart attack here, died three days later in the hospital. And I was the only guy with him when he flatlined and the priest read the rites. I was filling out the paperwork, because he didn't have a wife, kids, family. And two weeks later, this arrives in the mail. Because when you're poor and you don't have the burial plot, the government just throws you in, cremates you, and mails you out to whoever they think is family. So we keep him above the bar, that's his box up there. He's still part of the party. And he very much helps people. He helps himself, because no one really wants to be forgotten. And he never really told me what mountain he wanted to be spread on. That's not a conversation you typically get into with somebody.

I know that I'm doing the right thing by him in keeping him in the place that he loved, and I'm certainly doing the right thing by everybody who goes, "Wow!" and starts to think about their eating choices by being around him.

What is the most decadent thing on your menu? Jon, I would imagine it's the Octuple Bypass burger?

Jon B: Actually, in a cubic square inch, you have to try our Reese's milkshake. We're whipping peanut butter in with this 18 percent butterfat ice cream, and it's ... oh! We're putting Reese's in there. It's not that big, but calorically ... The Guinness book quoted our burger at 9,852 calories. You know what's interesting is that most of the caloric upping came from the onions. I never really realized this, but onions are very porous. And because we're cooking them in lard, they're soaking up that lard.

We have a policy: We don't count calories for any reason. I mean, if you were on a one-night stand with some gal, would it be wise to ponder AIDS statistics at the exact moment you're with her? No, of course not, because you're defeating the purpose of the physical activity. It's the same thing here. If you're gonna go for it, why do you want to think about the calories? We just don't post them. But Guinness came in as a third party and did this.

Jon K: Our most decadent item is our barbecued chicken pizza. It's probably 700-800 calories.

Would either of you eat at the other's restaurant?

Jon B: Oh, absolutely. He seems like a nice guy and he doesn't offend me, whereas other people in the health industry absolutely offend me. They're the lowest of used-car salesmen, and they're tinkering with our philosophy on food. But I think he has very good taste in food. It sounds good, so I'd like to go try it out sometime. I seldomly get out to restaurants. If I'm not here, I'm at home giving piggyback rides. It's pretty much somebody's birthday in the family when we actually do go out. And it would be hard to get my kids to go to this place (laughs). My kids like to come here because they like to do keg stands under the ice cream machine.

Jon K: Yeah, I would. I wouldn't daily, but I'd come for the experience.

Jon B: I wouldn't let him daily!

Jon K: I mean, it's ... I go to amusement parks, I go to baseball games. I have hot dog. I think you're allowed to splurge in certain areas. I would have one of those shakes that he's talking about.

Heart Attack Grill: 450 Fremont Street #130. For more information, go to heartattackgrill.com.

Greens and Proteins: 9809 W. Flamingo Road, 541-6400; and 8975 S. Eastern Ave., 541-7800. For more information, go to greensandproteins.com

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Ken Miller is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant ...

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