Retired Varsity carhop shares 63 years of ‘What’ll Ya Have’ memories

Louis Frank Jones, 89, worked his last shift at the Varsity in late March, a few days before the restaurant shut down all operations at the Midtown location to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. CONTRIBUTED BY BECKY STEIN PHOTOGRAPHY

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

Things don’t change often at the Varsity. Right now, however, there’s a big void at the iconic landmark in Midtown: drive-in service, an attraction since the restaurant was founded in 1928.

Blame the change, like so many others these days, on COVID-19.

Varsity Vice President John Browne made it official on July 9: “The operational, logistical and technological issues associated with curbside ordering and delivery have made it difficult to serve our customers safely and efficiently while maintaining adequate social distance to protect our team members.”

In pre-pandemic 2020, six or eight employees could manage curbside orders on a typical weekend. This past June, each shift required 15 workers to tackle drive-in traffic.

ExploreThe Varsity changes again, launching drive-thru on North Avenue - with carhops
ExplorePhotos: 90 years of the Varsity
The backlot of the Varsity circa 1950. CONTRIBUTED BY THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

Scribbling orders on paper and running credit cards inside isn’t the most efficient curbside system. Now, the Varsity is stuck in a long line of restaurants scrambling to secure portable ordering devices.

No date has been set for reinstating drive-in service, but, for one man, the temporary cease in curbside operations has brought permanent closure to a long, colorful career.

ExploreGrowing up in Athens, the Varsity's other hometown
Louis Frank Jones recently retired from the Varsity after working there as a carhop off and on for more than 60 years. CONTRIBUTED BY ASHLEY WEISER / THE VARSITY

Credit: Ashley Weiser/The Varsity

Credit: Ashley Weiser/The Varsity

Louis Frank Jones, 89, worked off and on as a Varsity carhop for 63 years. His last shift was in late March, a few days before the Varsity shut down all operations at the Midtown location to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. When it reopened four weeks later, he wasn’t among those walking dogs and F.O.s to rolled down driver-side windows.

His advanced age puts him at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Plus, his legs don’t hold up like when he started in the 1940s, and “didn’t know what tired was.” Frank — or “Red,” as they called him back in the days when every carhop had a nickname — has hung up his Varsity uniform for good. Carhop No. 1 is now retired and putting up his feet at his home in College Park.

“I’m sorry I can’t hop any more cars,” Frank told me. But, he was happy to share a bucketful of What’ll Ya Have memories accumulated in his more than six decades on the job.

He wasn’t yet in high school when he began taking orders for two hot dogs, fries and a Coke in exchange for a quarter.

“This was the place you came to make some candy money,” he said. “It was enough to buy shoes, clothes. All they wanted was your name and they gave you a job. You didn’t have to show your Social Security card.”

It also was a time “when people were burning wood and coal,” and when Frank’s own family did not have an indoor shower. The Varsity did. He availed himself of that running bath water; the locker room; the downstairs breakroom, where employees could sit for a spell; and even the green space adjacent to the Varsity’s vast complex on North Avenue that’s since been bulldozed, asphalted and turned into the Downtown Connector.

“When we’d get off, we’d play football until 1 or 2 in the morning. We had good times,” he reminisced.

ExploreThe Varsity: Where memories (and chili dogs) are made
Louis Frank Jones used to play football with fellow carhops on green space behind the Varsity. The lot was bulldozed to make way for the Downtown Connector. CONTRIBUTED BY THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

Frank loved jumping onto the side bumper of cars and riding them into the parking lot. “It was wild,” he said.

Frank was good at his job, but he was no angel. Being caught drinking, or not showing up for work, got him canned, and more than once. “I got fired a lot of times,” he said. At which point, Frank would take his carhop skills to the next drive-in. “Back in the day, they had drive-ins on just about every corner,” he said.

But, Frank kept coming back to the Varsity, and, ultimately, the Varsity outlasted the competition.

He rose to become a supervisor, in charge of the curb and the 50 carhops assigned to it. But, for Frank, managing other employees wasn’t as great as the job title sounds. “Nobody wanted it. You do a lot of cleaning up when you’re a manager.”

Louis Frank Jones (far right) poses with other Varsity carhops in 2003. CONTRIBUTED BY THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

There were times they tried to get him to work as a counterman, but Frank wouldn’t have it. “They couldn’t get me inside,” he said. Waiting on cars was his thing. Plus, the tips could be good, especially if you were willing to bend the rules — like give a guy five beers instead of being a stickler about the two-beer limit. “If he tipped good, he could get all he wanted,” Frank quipped. “I had a lot of customers. They looked specifically for me. They didn’t want anyone else.”

Frank was on the payroll when the Varsity quit selling beer in the 1980s. He was on the payroll when ham sandwiches got nixed. Barbecue, too.

A 2005 photo of Louis Frank Jones at the Varsity drive-in. CONTRIBUTED BY THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

Credit: THE VARSITY

For him, it’s really all about the Varsity dog, anyway. “I’ve been eating this hot dog a long time. You can’t beat this hot dog with a bag of potato chips and a Coca-Cola.”

Plenty of folks feel the same way — or they are intrigued enough by the storied Atlanta-based restaurant chain to give the franks a try. “People all around the world come in here,” he said. “I met a lot of movie stars, football players, baseball players. Evander Holyfield was one of the best tippers. He was a $40, $50 tipping man.”

An Atlanta institution is about to celebrate 90 years. When the Varsity asks "What'll ya have?," here are some ways to say it. What we have here is a double chili steak with cheese, strings and a P.C. (that's with ice). Don't want ice? That's N.I.P.C. This box of deliciousness contains strings, rings, a naked dog, a slaw dog and a chili steak. That sunny, slushy cup on the right? That's an F.O. (or Frosted Orange). Those onions on the side? That's sideways. Want extra chili on that dog? That's a heavyweig

His career as a carhop also brought him face to face with the injustices of racial segregation, as well as the rich and famous. He recalled a time when a car pulled in with Alabama plates and a Black chauffeur stepped out. “He couldn’t stay in the car while they ate,” Frank said. “You don’t see that anymore. There’s a lot of change that’s been made.”

Retirement will give Frank time with his wife, their seven kids — five of whom had job stints at the Varsity — and so many grandkids that he’s lost count. “We are spending time together. That’s what it’s all about.”

But he does miss the Varsity. “If I could work, I’d be up here now,” he said.

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