A woman makes chili dogs at The Varsity in downtown Atlanta. Now the chain’s owners are contemplating big changes. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

The Varsity: Owners of Atlanta icon face a big decision

Is The Varsity OK? That’s what I asked its president, Gordon Muir, whose mom is the CEO and whose grandfather founded the restaurant chain that is as Atlanta as Atlanta.

It seemed like a fair question given the recent sudden closing of The Varsity’s Alpharetta restaurant, leaving all of north Fulton un-Varsitized a dozen years after the outpost opened there.

The Varsity, a family-owned business, is at crossroads that’s bigger than its original Atlanta perch at the corner of North Avenue and Spring Street.

Muir said the Alpharetta restaurant near Haynes Bridge Road was in a poor location and was too big and too expensive for the amount of business it did.

But he told me The Varsity is doing “very well” overall and sales companywide have been up every year for the past 10 years.

Now, in fact, Muir and his brother-in-law, John Browne, the chain’s vice president, want to spread small Varsity restaurants across Georgia. But first they have to convince Muir’s mom, Nancy Simms, who is most focused on ensuring the legacy of the restaurants they already have.

Come March 1, they have a decision to make.

Family pow-wow

That’s when they have scheduled a family pow-wow including the company’s three owners (Muir, sister Carrie Browne and their mom, who is about to turn 70 and has stepped away from most daily operations). A consultant is slated to present results of customer surveys and a ranked list of the 10 best Georgia locations for a new Varsity.

The chain already owns and operates five locations. Two other outlets at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport are licensed to an outside operator, HMSHost.

Muir and Browne hope the top spot for a new restaurant will be in Winder (50 miles northeast of the original Varsity) where they postponed a groundbreaking for a planned restaurant to first get the consultant’s report.

They told me they favor the family building that one and at least three more in the next five years (they aren’t saying where yet). After that, Muir said, the question is: What’s the best way to continue growing?

Build more themselves? Start a franchise operation? Use a hybrid model like Chick-fil-A does?

“We don’t know,” Muir told me.

He did tell me he hopes the family’s next generation continues the legacy. He has a daughter who already handles marketing for the chain.

What’ll ya have?

Every business has a hook. The Varsity’s, near as I can figure, is that it’s unlike most everything else we know locally.

Not that you can’t get heaps of greasy food somewhere else, even chili dogs and onion rings.

But how many other restaurant chains have their own language? (When I was indoctrinated enough to order a Frosted Orange drink at the Athens restaurant just by saying, “I’ll have an F.O.,” it may have been the first time I felt like I had become a legit Georgian.) What other Atlanta eatery is as likely to be on a chamber website for the long haul?

Most fancy restaurants and buzzy neighborhood organics are pups on metro Atlanta’s restaurant scene. The Varsity has been in Atlanta’s culinary gut for 86 years.

Ninety percent of its sales involve some kind of food item dressed with its chili. (They now sell the stuff in cans, by the way.)

Chili can hide a lot of sins. We’re never entirely sure what’s in it, which I assume might be a good thing.

So, amid the nation’s constant chatter about healthy eating, I wasn’t all that surprised to hear about the Alpharetta Varsity’s closing. I thought, maybe that’s the price of being a chili-dog-and-onion-rings business in an increasingly kale-and-superfoods world.

A health nut?

Then I met Muir.

The president of The Varsity does not weigh 300 pounds.

Gordon Muir, the president of The Varsity and grandson of the chain’s founder, poses for a photo at the downtown Atlanta location. The Varsity’s Alpharetta restaurant closed for good recently. Now, the chain’s owners are contemplating what comes next for the company. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

He actually looks more like a kale-eating, high-end bicycle-riding guy, all lean even at 51 years old.

He claimed to me more than once that he eats Varsity chili dogs and hamburgers virtually every day he’s at the office, which apparently is often. He also does CrossFit training four or five days a week. And, he told me, he had The Varsity change to use rice bran oil.

“It’s high in omega-3,” he explained. “I’m into that stuff.”

I’m not making this up.

There are limits to what he’ll do, though. Muir told me he might add another salad to The Varsity’s menu. (Several regular diners seemed shocked and confused when I told them The Varsity already has a salad on its menu). But Muir said he doesn’t want to make dramatic shifts in food.

Change unwelcome

“We try not to change much of anything because customers hate that,” he told me.

Besides, he said, “people want to enjoy food. They want their pizza. They want their chili dog. I know people who eat kale salads all the time, but they don’t look happy doing it.”

When he started talking about having a balance to what we eat, he sounded like the folks across the interstate at Coke’s HQ when they insist sugary sodas can be incorporated in a healthy lifestyle.

Chili dogs may yet get new life. Burger King recently announced it will add hot dogs, including a chili dog, to its menu.

Just before the Alpharetta Varsity closed, Rebecca Glenn picked up her weekly regular: two chili dogs, fries and a drink.

“I love this place,” she said. She told me the grease seemed better lately, “not that it’s good for me.”

Maybe it’s the rice bran. It’s still The Varsity, though. And I’d hate to think of Atlanta without it.

As Muir told me about his family’s restaurant, “We are who we are.”

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