570-Pound Arizona Model Hired to Promote Heart Attack Grill
Blair River Featured in New Restaurant Ad That Jokes 'In Some Cases Mild Death May Occur'
By SARAH NETTER
Nov. 16, 2010
Blair River's a big boy. There's just no getting around it.
So he's putting his girth to use as the newly appointed spokesmodel for an Arizona restaurant that proudly proclaims "a taste worth dying for" as its motto.
River, who's 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 570 pounds, has appeared in online video advertisements for $100 an hour promoting the decidedly unhealthy fare at the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, where customers who weigh more than 350 pounds eat for free and the fries are deep-fried in lard.
River, 29, said he was merely a fan of the restaurant when he saw its owner, Jon Basso, advertising for a spokesman -- a big spokesman.
"He was looking for people over 500 pounds to do a commercial," River said. "I said hey, 'I'll do it.'"
Basso, known to restaurant patrons as Dr. Jon, in keeping with the restaurant's hospital theme, is no stranger to using gimmicks and entertainment to promote his restaurant. The menu proudly boasts both a "Quadruple Bypass Burger" and its "Flatliner Fries."
For his "Butterfat Shake," Grasso said, "the fat content of the cream is so high that if we have a quarter percent more, it would churn to butter in the ice cream machine."
Is he doing it to get the goat of nutritionists who blanch at the mere name of his restaurant? Maybe.
"We're in the front lines of the battle against anorexia," joked Basso, who's 45 and "normal weighted."
But River insisted he has no problem being seen as the big guy behind the big food. He said he's healthy, even though doctors lecture him to lose weight "all the time."
"This is me. If it's not me, it's going to be another guy," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I don't feel exploited or anything like that."
But maybe he should.
"This is like restaurant porn," said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Center in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "Somebody who is 350 pounds and over and eating this way is just going to be digging their grave with a spoon."
Expert Recognizes Grill's Gimmick but Still Disapproves of Fat Content
Although Basso estimated that the "Butterfat Shake" is the highest caloric item on the menu, he has never done the computations. Some people have estimated that the "Quadruple Bypass Burger" logs in at 8,000 calories, which Basso neither confirms nor denies.
"At this point, the government does not have a gun to my head forcing me to do such computation," he said. "At some point, they probably will.
"The moment you begin to ask how many calories are in something, you've asked the wrong question, because you are killing the fun."
River, a financial advisor by day and single dad to a 5-year-old daughter, said he was a big kid right from the start, weighing 10 pounds 8 ounces at birth.
He has tried at times to take some of the weight off, even auditioning twice for "The Biggest Loser" and once for another weight-loss show by the same producers. He wasn't chosen during any of his attempts.
"Since 'Biggest Loser' didn't want me, why not go the other way," he said, saying his spokesmodel stint is simply "using my size and having fun at it."
River's act of trying out for the famous weight-loss reality show, where contestants have been known to drop hundreds of pounds, indicates he knows he's too big, nutritionist Ayoob said.
"The question I would ask someone who is considering eating there is, 'Why are you doing this?'" Ayoob said of the Heart Attack Grill. "At some point, people are just going to say, 'I don't want to go eat there and now would be a good time to do that, I would say.'"
Although he wouldn't eat there himself, Ayoob said, he understands the entire point of the restaurant is to be "anti-good eating."
"Are they catering to a particular crowd? Yes," he said. "It's almost like saying I'm going to defy all the healthy-food people and the nutrition people.
"The kind of people that are going to go there may not be ready to make a change," he said.
Dr. Jon disagrees.
After years spent operating Jenny Craig centers and personal training studios, Basso said, he has learned that the best diet includes one "cheat day."
"I don't tell anybody to come in here seven days a week because they're going to die," he said.
But he does advocate for a diet that lets patrons take a day off. "If you do that and come to the Heart Attack Grill and blow off steam, you are significantly better off than any other diet on the market," he said.
But Basso knows there are people who would like to see him run out of business.
His restaurant made headlines in 2006 when a letter arrived from the Arizona attorney general, notifying him that the Arizona Board of Nursing had taken exception with the restaurant's waitresses dressing up as and being referred to as "nurses."
Let them yell, Basso said of his detractors.
"I'm still prescribing diet and exercise," he said. "It may be high-calorie diet and lack of exercise."
Nude Shoot Next for Obese Spokesmodel
Basso said he also likes that his restaurant, which seats 100 and is often "packed," offers an environment of acceptance to overweight customers who are typically "demonized" by society.
The scale that weighs customers trying for the free meal is strategically placed at the center of the restaurant where other diners can watch.
"Everybody applauds for them, cheers for them, a big smile comes across their face and for once they are finally accepted," he said. "They're not picked on here."
A typical meal for River at the Heart Attack Grill -- once he weighs in to prove he tips 350 pounds, just like every other customer -- consists of two "single bypass" burgers, a soda made with real sugar cane and unlimited "Flatliner Fries."
He tried his first "Double Bypass Burger" recently but hasn't worked his way up to the "Quadruple Bypass Burger" -- four meat patties with cheese and toppings. And by meat patties, they mean business; each patty consists of a half-pound of meat.
His boss said he has big plans for his new star: an upcoming nude photo shoot done in the style of Burt Reynolds' classic Playgirl pose, only with Heart Attack Grill "nurses" catering to River in the shot.
"I feel fine. I feel good," River said. "I'm happy.
"I don't eat there every day, every meal," he said. "I still go to Subway."