AT 90, THE VAR­SITY KEEPS ITS HOLD ON OUR HEARTS

Why drive-thru restau­rant keeps its hold on At­lantans’ hearts, stom­achs.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Bo Emer­son be­mer­son@ajc.com

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.”

In­vent­ing fast food

The Var­sity cel­e­brates its 90th birth­day this year. In At­lanta, a town with the per­ma­nence of an Etch-aSketch 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.

“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.

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.”

Be­gin­nings

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.

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.

Frank Jr.’s wi­dow, Su­san Gordy, took over the Var­sity Jr., kept it hum­ming and ex­panded its cater­ing side busi­ness to a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of rev­enue. And Gordy’s daugh­ter, Nancy Simms, with three chil­dren (in­clud­ing Gor­don Muir) and one stepchild at home, ar­rived at the North Av­enue Var­sity, ready to learn, from the onions on up.

“Mr. Minix (gen­eral man­ager E.D. “Ed” Minix) handed her a hair­net and an apron, and put her in the kitchen,” said Muir. “Some­body asked him: ‘Who’s that blonde lady back there?’ Minix said: ‘Oh, that’s Frank’s daugh­ter. She won’t last a week.’”

The odds were against her. “My fa­ther never sug­gested I be a part of the Var­sity,” said Simms, speak­ing from the fam­ily’s va­ca­tion home on Sea Is­land. “I had no train­ing. I’d never worked a day with my dad. I would go there for lunch, I’d go with a date, but I prob­a­bly knew less about the Var­sity than any­body.”

Sud­denly she felt re­spon­si­ble for 200 em­ploy­ees. She be­gan work­ing 16-hour days, clean­ing ta­bles, slic­ing pota­toes and de­vot­ing her­self to the restau­rant six days a week. “She turned into my grand­fa­ther. She’d go to work in the day­time, come home and make us sup­per, then go back down­town at night,” said Muir.

All along, the em­ploy­ees were show­ing her how to run the busi­ness. Said Simms, “This is the sit­u­a­tion: Here comes some­body they’ve never seen and never worked with, and they’re look­ing at me won­der­ing, ‘Who the heck is she?’ I had to get in there and work with them and do the same things they did, have them teach me, show them I could work as hard as they did to earn their re­spect.” The recipes — the fa­mous chili, for ex­am­ple — were writ­ten down, but she had to learn how to make them.

“We were too young to step in,” said Muir. “Her brother had passed away. If she hadn’t done it, there’d prob­a­bly be no Var­sity here. There’d prob­a­bly be a skyscraper here or some­thing.”

One more tragedy fol­lowed. In 1990, Gor­don Muir’s brother Michael was in a dev­as­tat­ing car ac­ci­dent. He was flown to a Pitts­burgh hos­pi­tal for care, and un­der­went sev­eral or­gan trans­plants, sur­viv­ing for a while, but de­clin­ing af­ter his or­gans be­gan to fail. Af­ter three years, he died. Nancy Simms was by his side.

In her ab­sence, Gor­don Muir rose to the oc­ca­sion. He’d al­ready had train­ing at the Var­sity Jr. as a teenager. Af­ter col­lege (at Rein­hardt), he re­turned to the North Av­enue Var­sity as an hourly em­ployee.

The Var­sity has con­tin­ued to ex­pand, with a few hic­cups. The Var­sity Jr. closed in 2010 af­ter zon­ing dis­putes with the city. A Var­sity in Al­pharetta lasted for 12 years, be­fore clos­ing in 2016. (“We were on the wrong side of the high­way.”) But the com­pany’s Daw­sonville store is go­ing great guns, said Muir, and they’re eye­ing new stores on prop­erty in Win­der and in Auburn, Ala.

The Mid­town store is lo­cated on 5 acres of land in a neigh­bor­hood of sky­scrapers. “I’m sure there’s a higher pur­pose for those 5 acres in At­lanta than a driv­ethru restau­rant,” said CEO Simms, “but I’m sen­ti­men­tal.”

Simms said she and 18 other fam­ily mem­bers are meet­ing for the se­cond time with a fam­ily busi­ness coun­selor to dis­cuss the fu­ture of the Var­sity.

“I’ve backed away a lot to let the guys han­dle it,” she said, men­tion­ing her son Gor­don, her son-in-law John Browne and her step­son Steven Simms, all in­volved in man­age­ment. “They don’t want their mother look­ing over their shoul­der.”

And fam­ily may well be the key. Dur­ing a re­cent lunchtime rush, a tanned vis­i­tor from Naples, Fla., brought his wife and chil­dren to taste the sto­ried chili dogs. “I’ve never seen any­thing like it,” he said, gaz­ing at the pho­tos of pres­i­dents who have dined there, from the Bushes, fa­ther and son, to Barack Obama.

“It’s a gold­mine,” he added, “as long as it stays in the fam­ily.”

HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Gor­don Muir, pres­i­dent of the Var­sity, pre­pares a tray at the Var­sity in Mid­town At­lanta. Muir is the grand­son of founder Frank Gordy. The Var­sity is turn­ing 90.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY THE VAR­SITY

Nancy Simms jumped into man­age­ment at the Var­sity af­ter her fa­ther, founder Frank Gordy, died in 1983.

PHO­TOS BY HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Var­sity doesn’t need a game day to be packed with cus­tomers. Here’s how the Mid­town lo­ca­tion looked on a re­cent Thurs­day.

Robert Wright, who’s been on the Var­sity staff for 30 years, de­liv­ers a take­out order to reg­u­lar cus­tomer Beu­lah Walker of At­lanta at the Var­sity in Mid­town At­lanta on Aug. 2.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.