Gordon Muir, president of the Varsity, is a walking advertisement for the health benefits of chili dogs, onion rings and fried pies.

The 53-year-old fast-food magnate steps out of a door labeled “Janitor” and strolls through his acre-sized palace of pig-out, looking more like a gymnast than a fan of the deep fryer.

Customers belly up to the 150-foot counter four deep, while cashiers holler “What’ll ya have?” and Muir executes a quick deep knee-bend to retrieve a stray napkin from the floor, straightening up effortlessly.

“Yesterday I had two chili steaks, and I felt it, right before CrossFit,” said Muir. “I didn’t plan to have two, but the first one disappeared so fast.”

So it’s either the chili steaks, or the CrossFit. One of these things is keeping Muir young.

His grandfather would say it’s the chili steaks.

Frank Gordy opened the Varsity in 1928, when North Avenue was a cobblestone street and Cobb County was covered in cotton farms. Gordy always said the fountain of youth was somewhere near his Frosted Orange machine, and it’s true that the Varsity seems caught in some sort of time warp.

The jaunty paper hats on the patrons, the chrome trim and art deco curves in the architecture, the archaic tradition of the carhop and — mostly — that Archie and Jughead devotion to high-calorie happiness, all speak of a different time.

Carhop Louis Frank Jones, 87, said the food is just as good as it was when he started, 70 years ago. (Back then, you didn’t need a Social Security number, he says, pausing as he totes a box of onion rings and dogs to a drive-in customer. “You just worked.”) Has anything changed? “Nothing but the price.”

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

Inventing fast food

The Varsity celebrates its 90th birthday this year. In Atlanta, a town with the permanence of an Etch-a-Sketch drawing, such durability is remarkable. The largest drive-in restaurant in the country, and perhaps the world, the Midtown Varsity, at North Avenue and Spring Street, encloses almost an acre under one roof, and can serve 30,000 people on a truly busy football Saturday.

There are also four other Varsities now, in Gwinnett (near Norcross), Kennesaw, Dawsonville and Athens, and two kiosks at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Gordy, who died in 1983, would say his success was due to good food at a good price, and the effort to make every single customer happy. Muir embraces that philosophy, but there is something extra about his reverence for the place.

Driving from his home in Roswell each morning, Muir will sometimes wait for the light on the North Avenue off-ramp and look at that soaring 45-foot chrome and red “V” sign, looming over the Downtown Connector, and marvel at his grandfather’s creation.

»RELATED: Photos of the Varsity through the years

“The third generation: That’s the generation that usually ruins things,” he said, contemplating his own place in the world. “We don’t want to do that.”

Muir’s colleague, Terry Brookshire, a former jet engine mechanic with the Air National Guard and now a general manager at the Varsity, said the thing that holds the business together is heart.

“We love these employees,” said the crew-cut Brookshire, a 20-year Varsity veteran, who reflexively picks up trash as he talks, a trademark among managers here. “A lot of people have been here as long as I have. If you really care about them, then things go smoothly, it keeps the Varsity shiny and bright, it makes the family proud, and makes customers proud.”

But maybe, for the customers, it’s the chili.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

What becomes a legend most

The late Atlanta Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard claimed that during his three-year "exile" in Chicago, he talked an Atlanta girlfriend into bringing a basket of chili dogs whenever she came to visit.

Roy Blount Jr., a former Decaturite who lives and writes in New York City and appears on the NPR game show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” has eaten all over the world and authored several books about food, including the latest, “Save Room for Pie: Food Songs and Chewy Ruminations.”

Blount says he visits the Varsity every time he’s in Atlanta. “Varsity chili is unlike any other, unparalleled,” he writes in an email. “I can’t imagine how it could be improved, or why anyone would want to change it in any way.”

He continues, “I ate a chili dog once while doing ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!’ at the Fox. The head of the CDC was the special guest on the show. I tossed him my peach pie. He walked off without it, as if it had cooties, which was okay by me as I really wanted to eat it myself —- but then he came back and got it, as one would.”


Frank Gordy attended Reinhardt College (where he met his future wife, Evelyn Jackson) and followed that with a year at Georgia Tech, but decided Georgia Tech was not for him.

After a visit to Florida, where he studied the takeout hamburger and hot dog joints with interest, he came back to Atlanta and bought a small snack shop right outside the Tech campus called the Yellow Jacket. In 1928, he moved a few blocks down North Avenue and opened the Varsity, with the idea of opening one in all major college towns. (He certainly couldn’t open an Athens drive-in called “the Yellow Jacket.”)

He served 300 people on the first day. By the end of the 1930s, during the bleakest economy in U.S. history, Gordy had already made his first million dollars. More Varsities followed, first one in Athens, then, in 1965, the Varsity Jr. on Lindbergh, opened by Gordy’s son Frank Jr.

»RELATED: Growing up in Athens, the Varsity's other hometown

The 1980s brought tragedy to the Gordy family. Frank Jr. was shot and killed in 1980 during a confrontation with police. Frank Gordy Sr. died of emphysema in 1983. In both cases, the Gordy women stepped in.