The world’s largest drive-in restaurant is famous for food with heaping helpings of nostalgia and entertainment served on the side.
By Amber Lanier Nagle
“What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”
It is not just a greeting. It is an Atlanta anthem, one that brings smiles and fond memories flooding back to so many. It’s the barking call of the jovial counter workers as masses of hungry customers step up to The Varsity’s long stainless steel counter to place their orders.
For 90 years, folks have flocked to The Varsity (known to regular diners simply as “The V”) before Saturday afternoon football games or any time they find themselves nearby and can’t resist the mouthwatering aroma wafting through downtown. The V beckons them to pull off the interstate and enjoy the finer things in life, like a hot dog, all the way, with a side of strings and an F.O.
For those unfamiliar with the landmark, don’t mistake The Varsity for a mere fast-food restaurant. It’s so much more—it’s an experience that must be savored.
“My dad was a natural showman, and he wanted everyone who came into The V to enjoy the food and have a fun, wonderful experience,” says Nancy Simms, current CEO and daughter of The Varsity’s late founder, Frank Gordy. “Even to this day, just before the lunchtime rush, I say under my breath, ‘It’s showtime.’ ”
The lunch crowds reach epic proportions. Consider this: The Varsity serves an average of 15,000 people every day, and on the busiest days, it serves 30,000 ravenous customers.
Simms has been at the helm of the business for 35 years and talks about the experience with boundless affection.“When my parents went away on vacation, my father couldn’t wait to get home and go back to work,” she recalls. “And I’m the same way. There’s never been a day when I got up and didn’t want to go in.”
Her fondness for the business was somewhat unexpected. In the early 1980s, Simms was a young mother with a passion for photography. She had never worked at The Varsity and had never even ordered her own food. “My father always ordered for us, or he would bring it home for us in the evenings,” she says. “I really didn’t know anything about The Varsity other than the stories he shared.”
Her father had been grooming older brother, Frank Jr., to eventually take over the business, but in 1980, an accident that claimed her brother’s life changed everything, including Simms’ career trajectory.
“By 1983, my father had emphysema, and my mother [Evelyn Gordy] didn’t think he’d ever go back to work,” she says. “My mother said, ‘You need to go and decide what we need to do with the business.’ I really thought we’d sell it, but that’s not what happened.”
General Manager Ed Minix gave her a hairnet and an apron, and showed her how to do everything from slice onions to bake pies to process payroll. Simms scooped so much ice cream that she developed tennis elbow. During that first week, a business associate pointed to Simms and asked Minix, “Who’s the blonde in the kitchen?” Minix is said to have replied, “Oh, that’s the owner’s daughter. She won’t last two weeks.”
“I learned that I really loved the work and the people,” Simms says. “I loved The Varsity, and I still do. Every day brings something different—something interesting. It’s a fun place to eat and a fun place to work.”
From College Dropout to Businessman
A country boy from Middle Georgia with an interest in engineering, Frank Gordy enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology and started taking classes.
“The legend is that a professor at Tech told him he was too dumb to run a hot dog stand, so he dropped out after one semester and decided to prove him wrong,” says Ashley Weiser, one of Gordy’s great-granddaughters and the institution’s marketing director. “That’s not exactly how it all happened.”
According to Weiser and other family members, soon after Gordy left school, he and his brother visited Florida and saw something they’d never seen before—small restaurants with walk-up windows. That’s when it clicked. From his semester at Georgia Tech, Gordy knew that the students were starving for fast, affordable food. He believed that if he built a drop-by type of eatery in the school’s vicinity, the students would come in droves.
Armed with his “million-dollar taste buds” and an innovative business plan, Gordy launched a small operation just off of campus near the intersection of Luckie Street and Hemphill Avenue, where he sold hot dogs for 5 cents apiece.
“The original name was The Yellow Jacket,” Weiser says. “And just as he thought, it was an instant success. He moved operations to the current location in 1928.”
Looking to capture some of the foot traffic from the nearby trolley stop, the young entrepreneur leased property on North Avenue and constructed a small brick building that housed a six-stool counter and a walk-up window.
“Dad was already thinking about opening a second restaurant in Athens,” Simms says. “He knew that UGA [University of Georgia] students would never embrace a restaurant called The Yellow Jacket, so he changed the name to The Varsity, and in 1932, he opened The Varsity in Athens, just across from
When Gordy left Tech, he told his two roommates that he would be worth $20,000 by the time they graduated—instead, he was worth $40,000. And while he never went back and finished his engineering degree, he designed his own conveyor belt system and production machinery. One invention could produce 2,500 pies in a single hour. It’s still in use today.
Changing With the Times
While the drive-in itself may not look so big today, in the 1950s and 1960s, 90 percent of The Varsity’s business was done on the curb. It was known as the World’s Largest Drive-In. The lot was so busy that a control tower and a PA were used to direct heavy traffic. The Varsity employed more than 100 carhops back then, and one earned an astounding $12,000 in tips in a single year.
By the 1970s, dining preferences had shifted, and most of the diners had moved inside. Only 50 carhops remained on the payroll. Gordy reacted by expanding the capacity of the dining areas to accommodate 650 customers. Atlanta was booming, and when the city needed to widen the Downtown Connector, it acquired part of The Varsity’s footprint. Gordy and family adapted again and kept moving forward.
In the 1980s, Gordy’s daughter added salads to the menu, decided to stop selling beer and built an indoor restroom for women. In 1990, the family opened another Varsity in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Today, The Varsity boasts five locations in the greater Atlanta and Athens areas, two satellite shops at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and catering trucks. It remains a family business, and multiple family members participate in day-to-day operations and feel honored to be part of tradition.
Gordy and family have continuously pushed through the myriad changes over the years and have proven to be infallible in their mission to provide quality food offered at affordable price points, with heaping helpings of nostalgia and entertainment served on the side.
A Thousand Memories
“In the early days of television, before most Americans had televisions in their homes, Frank put televisions in the rooms,” says Gordy’s grandson, Gordon Muir, who is president of The Varsity. “So many people saw their first television broadcast while at The Varsity. To this day, customers pull me aside and say, ‘I came here with my dad in the 1960s, and we watched “Batman” together.’ Sometimes, they get emotional.”
Other customers remember seeing The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or the solemn news coverage after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“In the 1960s, the Coca-Cola Co. wanted Dad to switch to fountain drinks, but he kept saying, ‘no,’ ” Simms remembers. “At the time, no one knew why he wouldn’t make the transition. Well, Dad had grown very fond of the delivery man, and he knew that when he switched to fountain drinks, the delivery man would lose his job, so he waited for him to retire, and then he switched. I think that says a lot about how much he cared about the people around him.”
In the 1970s, General Manager Joe Shalabi wanted to install cash registers along the counter. “My father didn’t see any reason to make that change,” she says. “He thought that it would slow down operations. There were holes cut in the stainless steel counters, and there were large mayonnaise jars underneath. The menu items cost even amounts, and so there was very little need to make change. The counter workers quickly raked the money into the holes.”
While Gordy was on vacation, Shalabi had two cash registers put in without the boss’s blessing and made sure a few people knew how to operate them well. When Gordy returned, he stood and studied an employee using one of the new cash registers for a while before finally saying, “I think this is going to work.”
For its first 55 years, The Varsity never closed. “We closed the day of my father’s funeral to allow our employees to attend,” Simms says. “[Writer and humorist] Lewis Grizzard decided to go by The Varsity that day and eat a hot dog in my father’s memory, but we were closed.”
And Simms recalls the busy times during the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, noting that the Olympic Village was just across the interstate from them.
“For pin traders, we had a pin designed that looked like five onion rings in a Varsity walking [to-go] box, and they were selling well,” she says. “But the International Olympic Committee thought the onion rings looked too much like their trademarked Olympic rings, and they confiscated our pins. I was furious, but their action caused our pin to become one of the most coveted, valuable pins ever. We even made the national news.”
“The Varsity is not only at the heart of Atlanta’s history, it is part of so many family memories, as well,” Muir says. “We are much like Sea Island in that parents bring their kids here and make memories, and when those kids grow up and have children of their own, they come here, too. Generation after generation, they come here and share a meal together. It connects them to the past, and to each other.”
The Varsity Family at Sea Island
A unique parallel exists between Sea Island and The Varsity. Both have become part of the fabric of families—the experiences and traditions passed from one generation to the next and the next.
The Varsity founder Frank Gordy (pictured left) began taking his family to Sea Island in the 1970s. “I loved going there so much. We all did and still do,” says Nancy Simms, CEO of The Varsity. “In 1990, we bought a house there, so my children and grandchildren practically grew up there.”
“Before Ocean Forest Golf Club was developed, my grandfather would take us fishing there,” Gordon Muir, The Varsity president, recalls. “We’d get a key to the gate from an office at The Cloister and disappear for a while. We’d eat our suppers there and fish.
“And we played a lot of bingo—a lot!” Muir laughs. “It became a joke that I never won the jackpot. Even my little brother won the jackpot one time. When I was about 27, I finally won $150.” The memories are priceless. “Our family is so happy to be able to share our 90th anniversary with Sea Island,” Simms says. “Both have been important parts of our lives, and we hope to celebrate our 100th with them, as well.”
The Varsity by the Numbers
The Varsity reigns supreme as one of the busiest restaurants in Atlanta, serving thousands of hungry customers each and every day. Here’s a look at this iconic Atlanta landmark by the numbers:
• The Varsity in downtown Atlanta serves, on average, 15,000 people per day and up to 30,000 people on its busiest days.
• If you lined up all the hot dogs The Varsity serves on an average day, they’d stretch over 2 miles.
• Each day, The V serves about 2,000 pounds of onions (onion rings), 300 gallons of chili, 5,000 fried pies and a ton of potatoes (french fries).
• The Coca-Cola Co. attributes The V to selling more Coke products than any other single restaurant in the entire world.