With a $1,860 nest egg Frank Gordy leased a house at 55 North Avenue, and constructed a small brick building in its front yard. Gordy felt he could take advantage of the foot traffic from the trolley stop at Peachtree Street and North Avenue. The 14-by-35 foot building had a six stool counter inside and a walk up window. With his eyes on the future, Gordy named his restaurant "The Varsity", theorizing that he would eventually use his food formula on at other locations. The Day The Varsity opened its doors, it served about 300 customers.
This ledger of accounts from the first four months of The Varsity's operation is a testament to the immediate success of the restaurant. On the first day of business, the restaurant made $47.30. Keep in mind that at that time, hot dogs were just 5 cents each. The most expensive items on the menu cost only 10 cents. Even on October 28, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that began the Great Depression, The Varsity posted $68.30 in receipts.
Gordy opened his second Varsity restaurant at 101 College Avenue in Athens, Georgia, directly across the street from the Arch at the University of Georgia.
John Wesley Raiford began working at The Varsity in 1937, learning quickly that to earn good tips, a carhop had to stand out. His flamboyant mannerisms prompted a customer to call him "Flossie". He began calling himself "Flossie Mae". Hat-wearing Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl bestowed Flossie with a hat, and he soon started decorating them. He also entertained his customers by singing the entire menu.
Gone With the Wind premiers in Atlanta. Clark Gable visits The Varsity and is served by Flossie Mae.
In the 1940's, The Varsity underwent a major makeover. To give the old brick structure a more modern look, white stucco siding was added that created a curve where two of the early brick building were joined. The concept, by architect Jules Grey, was designed to make the building look as streamlined as the cars now pulling up for service. The original buildings remain beneath the present day Varsity's exterior.
Carhop Number 46 gained his fame not because of his delivery expertise, but because of his comedy. Entertainer Julius "Nipsey" Russell attended Booker T Washington High School in Atlanta and took a job at The Varsity after he returned from World War II. Russell worked at The Varsity for four years, successfully using his comedy skills to increase his tips. He later credited his days at The Varsity with helping him develop his timing.
In 1948, Gordy made the decision that his restaurant was more important than The Varsity's Q Room and Barbershop. He closed them down to expand the restaurant and to create two TV viewing rooms. Television broadcasts were still in their infancy. WSB-TV went on air September 1948, in Atlanta, and Gordy felt his customers should be able to watch it as it grew.
Merita Bread ran this photograph in their 1950 feature on The Varsity. The cheering men are Auburn students celebrating before a Georgia Tech game. The lone woman in the foreground was an unusual sight. Until the 1960s, women rarely ventured inside The Varsity, preferring to have their food delivered outside.
By 1950, The Varsity had claimed the title of the World's Largest Drive-In. "Meet me at The Varsity" was catching on. Being a carhop at The Varsity was a coveted job, and by the 1950's nearly 130 of them were employed. One carhop boasted earning nearly $12,000 in tips in a year.
Next to Flossie Mae, perhaps The Varsity's best known employee was Erby Walker. Walker came to work at The Varsity in 1952 at the age of 15 and stayed for 55 years. He would later say that he did not ask Gordy how much money he would be making, but how many hot dogs he would be able to eat.
After the state had taken much of The Varsity's parking lot for highway construction, Gordy had "The Lunching Pad" built behind The Varsity with 100 parking spaces. After it's opening Gordy said his lot could handle 630 cars.
In the 1950s and 1960s, The Varsity parking lot was not just a place to come get food, it was somewhere to hang out and socialize and take dates. There are countless stories about the encounters that took place.
The world was changing, and the new Athens restaurant was Gordy's response. Students at UGA had cars and were venturing beyond downtown Athens for food; The Varsity Drive-In would be there waiting for them.
Frank Gordy Jr. opens The Varsity Jr. on Lindbergh Ave. This building was one of John Portman's first designs.
By the 1970's there were fewer than 50 car hops on the lot. Traffic had moved inside, with only 20 percent of business on the curb. "It's just a change in the way people live," Gordy said. He responded by expanding the dining room which could already seat between 450 and 470 customers. The 3,500 square-foot addition raised the inside dining capacity to nearly 650.
The Atlanta Chapter of Sales and Marketing Executives International honored Frank Gordy with its Salesman of the Year Award in 1979, and at a formal gathering of several hundred people, the previous year's award recipient, Ted Turner, presented a plaque to Gordy. "I built my business around quality and fairness," he said "We never change the quality or the taste of Varsity food; our food must be the same every day. And we greet our customers with courtesy and serve them quickly. We let them know we appreciate their business. So there's no secret to our success. Anyone will be successful if they will build their business around quality and fairness."
Frank Gordy passes away after a battle with emphysema. The Varsity closes the day he is buried for the first time in 55 years.
After her father's death, Nancy Simms stepped up to take over The Varsity and carry on his vision.
Nancy Simms son Gordon Muir joins the family business
President George H.W Bush came to The Varsity in 1990 and stayed long enough to enjoy a hot dog, peach pie, and a Coke. After ordering, he and vice president Gordon Muir headed to the dining room, where the president chose to sit with some customers who were already eating.
Nancy's daughter Carrie Muir Browne managed The Varsity's Catering Department for several years before she "retired" to become a full time mom. Her husband John Browne has worked for The Varsity since college and is District Manager over Norcross, Kennesaw, Athens and Dawsonville stores.
The Varsity Norcross opens and quickly becomes a neighborhood favorite.
The Varsity received so many requests for large outside orders that in the 1990s, they began a full scale catering operation. To maintain the quality of the food with such large requests, the idea was developed to create a catering truck with a complete kitchen inside. This way, just as in the restaurant, food would be cooked only as needed, following founder Frank Gordy's promise that all food from The Varsity is as fresh as possible. By 2011, The Varsity had six food trucks that handle everything from small birthday parties to large corporate events. During the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, The Varsity catered a 27,000-person event for Delta.
Erby Walker was chosen to carry the torch on a leg of the Olympic Torch Relay prior to the Games. He would later say that it was his proudest moment. After his run, he brought his torch back to The Varsity so that his coworkers could all share in the moment.
The Olympics come to Atlanta, the Olympic Village is right across from The Varsity. Pin trading takes place at The Varsity. Of the pins that were created for The Varsity, one in particular created quite a furor. It showed a "walkin' box" of onion rings, but the International Olympic Committee thought the rings looked too much like their trademarked Olympic rings. Claiming an unauthorized use of the Olympic symbol, they stopped the sale of the pin and confiscated those on hand at The Varsity.
The Varsity Kennesaw opens in 1999.
On December 18, 2000, a new, high-tech sign in the shape of "V" was erected outside The Varsity. Visible from the Interstate 75/85 connector, the 45-foot tall sign was created in partnership with Cocoa-Cola.
After working at The Varsity for 50 years, Erby Walker retired in December 2001. Although he proclaimed "This is the day I worked so hard for," retirement did not stick. He returned a few months later, working until his death in 2008.
Former Georgia governor Zell Miller introduced former president Bill Clinton to The Varsity. Known for his love of hot dogs and burgers, the president went the hamburger route during his visit but also partook of onion rings and a Coke. Miller grew up three blocks from The Varsity and shared stories of how he used to skip school to hang out at the drive-in.
The Varsity Alpharetta opened in 2004 and served the community for 12 years before closing it's doors in 2016.
In 2005, the movie We Are Marshall, starring Matthew McConaughey, was shot in Atlanta and The Varsity was the perfect location to depict scenes from the 1970s. McConaughey is shown here among some of the production staff in the bridge dinning area.
In 2001, a new Varsity opened in Dawson County, north of Atlanta. The new 4,550 square foot restaurant includes seating for 150 and a playground for children.
On August 22, 2010 after 45 years at the Lindbergh Drive location, The Varsity Jr. closed. The decision was a hard one, and loyalists turned out by the hundreds to have one last meal.
In 2012 President Obama visited The Varsity and enjoyed chili dogs, talking with employees and customers and posing for photo ops.
In 2012 The Varsity opened in the international terminal at Hartsfield Jackson Airport. The next year, another storefront opened in terminal C. These locations are operated by HMS Host.
In 2016 The Atlanta History Center featured The Varsity's #1 Combo (2 chili dogs, onion rings and a Frosted Orange) as part of it's exhibit, "Atlanta in 50 Objects".