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Family celebrates Varsity with goal for ‘the brand to survive’

Fans swarmed the Varsity’s Midtown restaurant Saturday to get 90-cent deals on the iconic chili-dog chain’s 90th anniversary.

It was an all-hands-on-deck day for the North Avenue landmark: Members of the family that owns the restaurant directed traffic in the jammed parking lot and had to turn away the overflow. But the family faces bigger tests for the business.

One is how to grow it. The other is more basic.

“We want the brand to survive all of our generations,” said John Browne, the Varsity’s vice president and husband of one of Varsity founder Frank Gordy’s grandchildren.

Fred Stewart, a 17-year employee, of the Varsity, delivers food during the Varsity’s 90th birthday party, Saturday, August 18, 2018. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

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Another of Gordy’s grandchildren, Gordon Muir, is the Varsity’s president, and a great-grandchild, Ashley Weiser, oversees the chain’s marketing.

“We are on generation four,” Browne said. “We are studying how to make this last through generation 10.”

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

» RELATED: Photos of the Varsity through the years

» RELATED: Podcast makes a visit to the Varsity

Some decisions are taking longer than expected. They’ve been contemplating opening a restaurant in Winder for about five years. They’ve considered another in Auburn, Alabama, for maybe a decade.

Server David Corbett looks for his customer to deliver his food during the Varsity’s 90th birthday party on Saturday, August 18, 2018, in Atlanta. Hundreds of people turned out at the landmark restaurant, where all menu items were 90 cents in honor of the birthday. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

More recently they bought nearly the entire block around their Athens restaurant at the corner of Broad Street and Milledge Avenue and tore down buildings of other businesses that had been there.

What will they ultimately use the land for?

“We don’t know that yet,” Browne said. “Right now we are planting grass.”

“This family is a generational investor,” he said. “We have learned we are better at purchasing and owning land, not developing it. We are just worn-out old hot dog men.”

Hundreds of diners turned out on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, to take part in The Varsity’s 90th birthday celebration, which included all menu items at a price of 90 cents. (Photo: MATT KEMPNER / AJC)

The Varsity, which opened in 1928, is owned by the founder’s daughter and her two surviving biological children. But a bigger group of family members — 22 in all — are convening for a retreat in September to discuss the family business. They had a somewhat similar gathering earlier this year, and they’ve hired a family business consultant to help them as they think about the future of the company.

More than two years ago they brought in a consultant to help them survey customers and contemplate potential future restaurant locations.  But they haven’t opened a new stand-alone restaurant since locating one in Dawsonville several years ago. (They also closed one in Alpharetta.)

» RELATED: Photo gallery from Saturday’s birthday bash

One part of the business will remain constant, Browne said. “We are not changing anything as far as the food.”

That continues to be a draw. So does generational customer loyalty, passed down from parents to children. That and 90-cent prices Saturday attracted big crowds to the intown Varsity near Georgia Tech.

Long lines form around the Varsity during the Atlanta landmark restaurant’s 90th birthday party on Saturday, August 18, 2018. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Hundreds of people stood outside in lines that snaked through the parking lot. One woman said she waited 40 minutes just to get to the threshold of one of the restaurant’s entrances. Cars were backed up along Spring Street.

“I’ve been here 33 years,” said Gordon Muir, The Varsity’s president, “and I’ve never seen a line out the door and to the sidewalk.”

Another first, he said: They repeatedly had to turn drivers away from the packed parking lot. A vintage firetruck that was part of the planned party had to be turned away initially; there was no room for it.

Some customers put in giant orders: 150 to 200 hot dogs each, Muir said.

Carla Hudson plays a game with her nephew Lania while they wait for their food during the Varsity’s 90th birthday party, Saturday, August 18, 2018, in Atlanta. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

All the Varsity’s stand-alone locations were “very busy,” he said.

Pam Aiken made the trek to Midtown from her home in Snellville.

“I’ve been coming here since birth almost,” said the 72-year-old, who grew up in Atlanta.

Pam Aiken, 72, was among those taking part in The Varsity's 90th birthday celebration on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. “I’ve been coming here since birth almost,” she said. (Photo: MATT KEMPNER/AJC)

It was a top spot as a teenager after movies. Carhops, she said, would jump on the hoods or trunks of customers’ cars and ride them in.

The food, Aiken said, “is an acquired taste.” She planned to order her usual: chili steak, onion rings or fries and a P.C. (a cup of plain chocolate milk drizzled over shaved ice, according to The Varsity’s unique lingo).

Sonya Ferguson, 59, of Decatur remembered her dad bringing her Varsity meals as a child. She came back Saturday for more. She said she isn’t sure the family who owns The Varsity really wants it to get much bigger, given the potential risks for any business making dramatic changes.

Perhaps, she said, “they like it just the way it is.”

»THE ACCESSATLANTA PODCAST GOES TO THE VARSITY 

At ajc.com/podcasts, check out our weekly accessAtlanta podcast’s visit to the Varsity in advance of the 90th anniversary celebration. Hear interviews with staff and customers and get the story of the beloved fast-food spot’s past, present and future from president Gordon Muir.

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