The Varsity at 75

Caption
Lines are irrelevant at the Varsity on a football Saturday. “Just herd up to the counter,” said Varsity President Gordon Muir.

What'll ya have? A menu of memories
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s journalists follow the facts, because you deserve to know what’s really going on.

This year is the Atlanta landmark's 85th year. Here's a look back at our 2003 story on the occasion of the beloved fast-food emporium's 75th anniversary.

As the only daughter of Frank Gordy, founder of the Varsity, she was supposed to go to college, get married and have children --- and she did. But when her father fell terminally ill, there was no one else in the family to mind the store. "Give the girl a hairnet and an apron," a manager said when Simms dutifully reported for work, figuring to stick around long enough to sell the business.

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She was surprised to discover that she actually enjoyed frying things.

Sitting in the hospital with her dad not long afterward, she heard him grumble, "That damned Nancy's down there cleaning everything up."

Twenty years later, Simms is still there, working out of a cramped office identified on the door as the janitor's closet. At 57, she's happily grooming another generation to follow in her footsteps --- and those of her father --- at one of Atlanta's most beloved landmarks.

This year that landmark is observing its 75th birthday. Six Varsity locations in Atlanta and Athens will celebrate next Saturday with 75-cent menu items. An illustrated history book will come out later this fall. To top it off, Erby Walker, the peerless counterman who has been barking, "What'll ya have?" for half a century, will be inducted this week into the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau's Hospitality Hall of Fame.

Is an overgrown fast-food joint worth all the fuss?

Every city has a handful of places that become, through some alchemy of atmosphere and shared experience, an essential ingredient in the local flavor. Since opening in 1928 across from the Georgia Tech campus, the Varsity has become one of those places.

It's more than the food, which runs from burgers and wieners to fried pies and a milkshake known as the F.O., for frosted orange.

It's the memory of childhood excursions downtown, of football Saturdays and Friday night dates. It's carhops in red paper caps, the smell of chili and onions and gurgling grease, the gleam of that 150-foot stainless steel counter, the warren of TV rooms with school desk chairs facing the screen, the sound of countermen calling out orders in that peculiar lingo in which a couple of hot dogs to go becomes two-dogs-a-walkin'. It's the crazy-quilt building itself, which looks as if a 1920s theater married a 1940s bus station and sired a 1960s parking deck.

Perhaps no one captured the Varsity's place in Atlanta's imagination better than the late Maynard Jackson, who was known to stop by for a chili dog. During his first stint as mayor, he got into a tiff with the state over how to rebuild the Downtown Connector while minimizing damage to the big drive-in at the North Avenue exit. "If we can send a man to the moon, " Jackson said, "we can widen that road and save the Varsity, too. I mean, first things first."

For 75 years, the Varsity and its satellites have remained in the hands of Gordy's kin. They regard it as a business, naturally, but also as a kind of public trust. It has been a joyous stewardship for the most part. Behind the scenes, however, the family has suffered more than its share of trials and tragedies. Sometimes, to put it in Varsity terms, life has handed them an onion and they've cried --- and then they've gone back to work and made onion rings.

If you're a longtime Atlantan, you probably know some of the story behind the legend, but you don't know all of it. If you're a latecomer, sit back and listen to a tale that anyone who lives within a day's drive of Peachtree ought to hear.

It begins with a restless young man who decided he didn't want to be an engineer.

Daddy drive-in

Like a lot of Atlantans, Frank Gordy was a country boy. He grew up in Thomaston, in Middle Georgia, and enrolled at Georgia Tech to please his mother. But Tech didn't please him. He dropped out after one semester and went to Florida hoping to strike it rich in the land boom of the 1920s. In Orlando, he beheld something new in the American landscape: drive-in restaurants.

"That's where he got the idea, " says Evelyn Gordy-Rankin, his 96-year-old widow. "He'd sit and watch those operations and try to figure them out."

After returning to Atlanta, Gordy remembered how hard it was to find an inexpensive meal around the Tech campus, and he bought a sandwich shop on Luckie Street, the Yellow Jacket Inn. He moved to the current site in 1928, building a small brick restaurant that he christened the Varsity --- a name he chose because he wanted to open another one in Athens and knew the Bulldog faithful would never go for the Yellow Jacket.

Most of the trade was curb service in the early years. By the 1940s, business was so brisk that Gordy employed 200 carhops and had to erect a tower to direct traffic.

"We used to jump on the running boards out at the red light and take their order before they turned in, " recalls Frank Jones, who's been waiting on cars at the Varsity for 48 years.

Gordy involved himself in every detail. He taste-tested the food, pointed customers to the shortest line, told jokes and handed out Varsity pocketknives.

"I always admired Mr. Gordy for the way he treated his customers and made sure everything was all right, " says Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, who grew up in the neighborhood and used to take his girlfriend to the Varsity in his Model A. "Watching that place may very well be what inspired me to get into the restaurant business."

Gordy was every inch the paternalistic boss. He was as tough as a cheap steak but could be as soft as a hamburger roll when the spirit moved him.

Walker, the counterman, remembers Gordy almost firing him for getting mustard on a bun when he was making hot dogs shortly after he started at the Varsity in 1952. The Hawk, as workers called Gordy, liked his mustard neat and straight as a pinstripe.

But the man took care of his people. He'd peel off a $50 bill when he saw a job done well and would bring watches for the entire staff when he returned from vacation. He rewarded prized employees with trips to Disney World, sending Walker and his large family not once but twice.

"Walt Disney was my father's hero, " says Simms. "He loved showing people a good time."

Father and son

Early on, Gordy considered transplanting his short-order kingdom to college towns around the Southeast. He opened a Varsity in downtown Athens in 1932 and looked seriously at property near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He never followed through. Instead, he added rooms and parking to the mother ship, creating an 800-seat colossus that he billed as "the world's largest drive-in." That way, he could feed his ambition and still taste the chili every morning.

"He didn't want to sit at a desk and run a bunch of restaurants, " says Gordy's grandson, Gordon Muir, the Varsity's vice president. "I don't think he trusted anybody."

Sometimes he didn't trust his own son.

Frank Gordy Jr. wanted to make it on his own. As a young man, he left Atlanta and started a career as a securities analyst in New York. His father asked him to come back and learn the restaurant trade. They had a friendly enough relationship, spending many hours together in the woods hunting and fishing, but they never quite saw eye to eye on the family business.

"Daddy wanted to control everything, " says Simms. "By the time Frank was coming along, our father had gotten older and had enough money and wanted to spend more time fishing. Frank would have a good idea, and Daddy didn't want to hear it. There was a bit of competition between them."

Once, Frank Jr. told a reporter in frustration, he had a major company lined up to franchise the Varsity, but his father backed out when it came time to negotiate the details. The old man hated contracts.

"Mr. Gordy didn't want anything to do with the numbers side of the business, " says William Boshell, the Varsity's longtime accountant. "He just wanted to sell hot dogs."

In 1965, without his father's consent, Frank Jr. opened the Varsity Jr. on Lindbergh Drive in northeast Atlanta. The elder Gordy reluctantly blessed it after the fact and sent veteran employees to make sure it was successful. Frank Jr. contented himself with managing the smaller enterprise, although he didn't seem to relish the restaurant life as much as his namesake; he spent much of his time there trading commodities behind a closed office door.

A week before Christmas 1980, he went to the Buckhead Boys holiday party and repaired to a diner in Sandy Springs afterward. Witnesses said he made a scene, pulling a pistol in the parking lot and firing it. When Fulton County police arrived, Gordy reached into his pocket and, according to the officers, raised the gun in their direction despite repeated warnings. They shot him three times.

The family briefly considered legal action but decided that would only extend the pain.

"I think he'd had too much to drink, " his sister says. "Alcohol made him crazy."

The killing left Frank's widow, Susan Gordy, in control of the Varsity Jr. A high-spirited former fashion publicist, she went to work at the drive-in wearing a silk blouse and high heels.

"I was still in shock, " she says. "I remember driving home one night in Frank's truck just crying and crying."

Never remarried, Gordy made her husband's business her life, working seven days a week and building a catering service that takes Varsity food on the road. In the late '80s, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a surgeon recognized Gordy as she was being wheeled into the operating room and said, "What'll ya have?"

She phoned the restaurant from recovery to check on the lunch crowd.

Her father's daughter

Frank Gordy's health was slipping by the time his son died. A reformed chain smoker, he had developed emphysema and had to carry an oxygen tank to work. In 1983, a few months before the end, Evelyn Gordy told their daughter it was time for her to go downtown and decide what to do with the Varsity.

Nancy Simms was hardly prepared to step in. She was raising a family --- three children from her first marriage, a stepchild from her second --- and was working on the side as a photographer. She'd never paid much attention to her father's business. She'd never even ordered at the counter --- he had always done that for her.

"I was frightened, " Simms says of her first days on the job. "I didn't know anything."

With advice from her sister-in-law and general manager Joe Shalabi, Simms started making her mark. She had the place thoroughly cleaned. She stopped selling beer and added salads to the menu. She had a women's restroom put inside; incredibly, the only facilities for women at the Varsity had been outside, a vestige of the days when most ladies stayed in their cars and used curb service.

Simms proved to be very much her father's daughter. She loved working the crowds and handling promotions. Almost as detail-obsessed as the Hawk, she soon earned her own nickname from employees: "Eyes." Once, checking on the night shift, she donned a wig and baseball cap and made an incognito inspection that ended when a staffer recognized her and exclaimed, "Mrs. Simms!"

In 1990, Simms and her son Gordon Muir built the first new Varsity in a quarter-century in Gwinnett County. They were busy with the opening when another tragedy struck. Michael, her second son, was in a car wreck and suffered horrific internal injuries. He underwent a liver and intestine transplant in Pittsburgh, where Simms moved to be at his side. Then the transplanted organs began to fail.

More than a decade later, as she tells the story at a table in the middle of the Varsity lunch rush, Simms' blue eyes pool with tears. "It was just hell, " she says. "I couldn't let him go. But he told me there are things worse than dying. So we took him home."

Michael's death changed his mother. Her religious faith deepened, and she started a voluntary Bible study group for employees that meets weekly in one of the Varsity's TV rooms.

The death changed the business, too. Although he was only in his 20s, Muir was left to help run the company during his mother's three-year vigil in Pittsburgh.

Today, at 38, he is the Varsity's heir apparent. He and his right-hand man, brother-in-law John Browne, have opened restaurants at Town Center in Cobb County and, this year, in Alpharetta. They're considering a lunch-only operation in Peachtree Center and would like to build a skybox banquet room overlooking Tech at the original Varsity. Muir says sales at North Avenue remain strong --- $9.5 million in 2001, the Atlanta Business Chronicle estimates --- but that the number of customers has declined over the years as more dining options have appeared downtown. To expand the business, he's looking to the suburbs.

"We'd definitely like to keep growing, " Muir says, "but we never want it to feel like a corporation instead of a family."

Above all, the family wants the Varsity to maintain its uniqueness. Customers aren't shy about letting management know when they think the place is in danger of straying from its Southern-fried roots. When the restaurant underwent a major renovation before the Olympics, Simms got used to regulars, upset over the modifications, telling her that her father must be rolling over in his grave.

"People don't want the Varsity to change, " she says. "They think of it as their Varsity, not ours. That's why we've been here 75 years."

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