Heart Attack Grill: When Is a Crisis a Big, Fat PR Opportunity?

The Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas keeps getting press, and whether it's good or bad press for this establishment, which serves high-calorie meals, makes for an intriguing crisis/reputation management question.

It was widely reported that on Saturday, April 21, a woman collapsed mid-meal at the Grill and was taken to the hospital. According to the restaurant’s owner, Jon Basso, the woman had been eating, drinking alcohol and smoking when she fainted. Apparently it was not a heart attack, like the one suffered by a man who collapsed at the Grill in February.

For most restaurants, people passing out and having heart attacks while eating their meals would be a PR disaster. But not so for the Heart Attack Grill, which has servers dressed up like doctors taking orders for “Bypass Burgers” and “Flatliner Fries.” For the Grill, these incidents are less a crisis and more of an opportunity, says Aimee Steel, strategic communications adviser and leader of the high-stakes communications practice at Holland & Knight.

“While the news is grim about the woman collapsing, I would venture to guess that many people read this and said to their friends: ‘We’re going there next time we’re in Vegas,’” says Steel. Besides, the Grill is located in a city where people go for a few days to live life in excess. Would Heart Attack Grill succeed in any other city? Steel doesn’t think it would.

Granted, people are warned when they enter the restaurant. A sign on the door says, half-jokingly, “Caution: This establishment is bad for your health." And eating a burger with a pound of meat and topped with bacon hasn’t scientifically been found to cause imminent heart attack. So the restaurant would seem to be in the clear from a legal standpoint. But from an ethical one, Heart Attack Grill sits on shaky ground. In this day and age, with obesity—and all of the health problems caused by it—in the forefront, such an establishment is more than politically incorrect.

But owner Basso seems unperturbed, wishing the women who collapsed a speedy recovery in an interview in the Los Angeles Times, and even dispensing some health advice. “She was eating, drinking, smoking, laughing, dancing, having fun," said Basso. "But when you treat your body like that day in and day out, eventually your body is going to give out."

Whether you like it or not, that message is a juicy, half-pound PR Classic.

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