Gordon Muir pinches himself every morning on his I-75 South commute, right around the time a towering, chrome-lined “V” comes into view over the downtown Atlanta connector.
“I get off at this exit and look at that big red sign and this building, and I'm still in awe,” he says. “The city really has grown up around The Varsity.”
Muir, 53, has grown up around The Varsity, too.
His grandfather, Frank Gordy, opened the Atlanta landmark in 1928, just down the street from The
Within a few months, Gordy moved his operation a few blocks down North Avenue, leasing a house and building a small brick building in the front yard with a walk-up window and a six-stool counter inside. He named it The Varsity, with visions of opening more restaurants on other college campuses. He served 300 people on his first day in business, pocketing $47.30.
“And he never looked back,” Muir said.
Over the last 90 years, The Varsity has emerged as an Atlanta institution known not just for its signature menu items like chili dogs, onion rings, Frosted Orange milkshakes and fried pies, but for the memories it creates.
“The Varsity means family, it means tradition,” said Ashley Weiser, The Varsity’s marketing director and Muir’s daughter. “It brings a sense of home to a lot of people. When they think about Atlanta, they think about The Varsity. They think about the food and the fun times they’ve had here.”
Gordy quickly expanded The Varsity beyond its midtown flagship and expanded his family-run, fast-food empire in the decades that followed. In 1932, The Varsity opened its second location in Athens, Ga. near the University of Georgia campus. The Varsity Jr. opened in Atlanta in 1965 (it closed in 2011).
In addition to Atlanta and Athens, The Varsity currently has locations in Norcross, Kennesaw and Dawsonville, plus two kiosks at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and a catering operation powered by five food trucks.
While the business continues to grow and expand, very little about The Varsity has changed over the years – from the paper hats sported by staff and patrons alike, to the restaurant’s mid-century décor and architecture, to its iconic chili recipe. Many Varsity employees have been on the payroll for 30-plus years.
“We strive very hard to make sure that the experience and the food stay the same,” Muir said, noting that the restaurant’s throwback vibe adds to its mystique.
“It’s the lore of The Varsity,” he continues. “People hear about it. They see it on the Food Network… and they want to come and experience it. At the same time, we have a lot of repeat customers who eat here several times a week.”
‘What’ll ya have?’
The original Varsity restaurant feeds up to 30,000 guests on it busiest days, which means service must be fast. Counter workers keep the lines moving with the friendly, yet to-the-point greeting of “What’ll ya have?” In-the-know regulars shout out shorthand lingo while ordering.
“Speedy service is such a key part of the experience because of the volume of people we serve,” said Weiser. “We credit the late, great Erby Walker, who was a manager here and a cashier for many years, with coining the phrase. ‘What'll ya have?" is "Come on, come up. Do you know what you want? We're going to serve you so we can get to the next person in line’."
By 1950, The Varsity could claim the title of the World's Largest Drive-In and employed more than 100 carhops. At the height of America’s love affair with cars, The Varsity parking lot was a popular hangout and date spot.
Traffic had moved inside in the 1970s, with only 20 percent of The Varsity’s business coming from the curb. Gordy responded by expanding the dining room to seat nearly 650 people.
“It’s still an important piece of our business,” Muir said. “For certain customers, that's their Varsity experience. They love to be able to pull up, and they know their carhop. A lot of the guys out there, like Mr. Frank (Jones), he's been out there 55 years. He has customers looking for him. It’s a nostalgic feeling of pulling up, having the tray hooked to your car window, and passing around the food.”
The Varsity is and always has been a family-owned and operated business, with Weiser representing the fourth generation. When Gordy died in 1983 after a battle with emphysema, his daughter (and Muir’s mom) Nancy Simms stepped in to carry on his vision. Longtime Varsity General Manager Ed Minix handed Simms an apron and a hairnet and sent to the kitchen to learn.
“A gentleman we bought our to-go boxes from for many years happened to come by when my mom was working,” Muir said. “He asked Ed, ‘Who's that blonde lady back there in the kitchen?’ Ed said, ‘Oh, that's Mr. Gordy's daughter. She won't last a week.’
She lasted a lot longer than a week.
In 1990, Muir’s brother Michael was in a car accident. He was treated in a Pittsburgh hospital, where he underwent several organ transplants before passing away three years later with his mom at his side. Muir, who'd worked at the Varsity Jr. as a teenager, was tapped to keep The Varsity running when he was in his mid-20s. He's has been at the helm ever since.
“All of us owe it to my mom,” said Muir, who manages The Varsity with his daughter, brother-in-law, stepbrother and sister. “I think my grandmother would've sold this place if she hadn’t stepped in.”
This commitment has persevered. “My family and our passion and love for the business… that's what we're known for,” Weiser said. “It's in our blood. We love serving the people of Atlanta, and we want to give them what they expect and what they love.”
In fact, legend has it that a custom pipeline delivers the beloved beverage beneath North Avenue from Coke headquarters to The Varsity.
“That’s not true, of course, but in the ‘30s and ‘40s,
Some customers tell Muir that the fountain Coke at The Varsity is the best in town. “It just goes so well with two chili dogs and a side of onion rings,” he said. “That’s something that could never change… I think there'd be riots.”
Fletcher added, “When you think about
The Varsity is honoring its 90th birthday with a party on Saturday, Aug. 18., from 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. The Varsity will offer 90-cent prices on all menu items, door prizes, music and special guests. Learn more at thevarsity.com.
The Varsity is selling limited-edition 90th anniversary cups for $5.99. With the purchase of a cup, customers will get unlimited refills on