Food & Drink

A Day at the Varsity

As the Atlanta drive-in institution prepares to celebrate its ninetieth birthday, G&G goes behind the scenes to spend a day in the kitchen and at the counter… “What’ll ya have?”

Whether your meal at Atlanta’s the Varsity happened at lunch last week, in 1996 during the Olympics, or between classes at Georgia Tech in the 1950s, the experience probably looked—and tasted—uncannily similar. “Atlanta’s like an Etch-A-Sketch; the skyline’s always changing,” says Ashley Weiser, whose great-grandfather, Frank Gordy, started the Varsity in 1928. “We’ve stayed the same.”  Weiser’s first job, at age fifteen, was sweeping floors; today, she’s the Varsity’s marketing director, and in between has held just about every position you can imagine at the family-owned institution. She’s not alone: many employees have been with the Varsity for decades.

As an Atlanta native, I have fond childhood memories of scarfing down Varsity chili dogs before Braves games and topping meals off with frosted oranges, or F.O.s, in the restaurant’s lingo. So as the Varsity crept up on its 90th birthday celebration this Saturday, August 18, I went behind the scenes to see what makes this landmark drive-in tick. I assembled hand pies, slung battered onion rings into the fryer, prepped food in the “hotdog hole”that’s the corner of the restaurant devoted entirely to dishing out the entree that started it all. “It’s old Atlanta, and it’s new Atlanta at the same time,” Weiser says. “The Varsity is for everybody.”

Click through the gallery for a closer look at a real Southern institution.

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Frank Gordy founded the Varsity, originally dubbed the Yellow Jacket, in 1928, serving students near Georgia Tech’s downtown Atlanta campus. “Frank’s uncle had a gas station on Luckie Street, and he rented out a lean-to up against it. It was big enough for a pot of chili and a cooler of Coke,” Weiser says. Within a year, Gordy bought the property on North Avenue and Spring Street where the Varsity sits now—and already had an eye on expanding to other cities. “I changed the name to the Varsity because I couldn’t very well open a Yellow Jacket restaurant in Athens,” he explains in What’ll Ya Have: A History of the Varsity.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

What’ll ya have? Down by the drive-in entrance, sixteen-year Varsity vet Fred Stewart serves up the signature catchphrase. It’s credited to an even longer-tenured employee, the late Erby Walker, who joined in 1952 and stayed for fifty-five years. “He started that here at the original location,” says Terry Brookshire, operations director. “It was a great fit, because Mr. Gordy was very focused on speed of service, quality of food, and being the fun place to eat.”

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Until the 1930s, all of the Varsity’s hand pies were made by a single baker and his wife in their home. To keep up with demand, Gordy invented this pie machine, inspired by the conveyor belts he saw working on his uncle’s peach orchard in Fort Valley, Georgia, and brought the production in-house.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

When I arrived for my shift (above, far right), making pies was my first assignment. The Varsity’s machines can crank out 2,400 pies per hour, although that number is lower when a newbie, like me, is working one of the stations. Slipping dough through the machine to be flattened, placing the flat crust onto the molds, scooping the perfect amount of filling, or sealing up each pie to be stored until frying time—each step requires precise timing and focus to keep the line moving.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Jaida Danso has worked at the Varsity for thirty-seven years. According to her, everything has stayed the same—mostly. “We do have more politicians that come in here now,” she jokes. “But what do they want to eat? Hotdogs. Everybody loves hotdogs.” Danso is no different—her go-to lunch order is a chili dog and onion rings.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Here, onion rings are always made with fresh onions—never frozen—and Atlanta Magazine once touted “onion cutter at the Varsity” as one of the city’s toughest jobs. Now, the onions arrive pre-sliced, but they’re still battered and fried by hand.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Tossing them into the fryer from the rod is a delicate task—you don’t want the rings to “doughnut,” or stick together.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Chili dogs, fried pies (one apple, one peach), onion rings, and a frosted orange—all staples on the Varsity’s menu.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

On record days, the Varsity sells up to two miles of chili dogs, so streamlining is key. The company manufactures its own custom tools in the basement of the Atlanta location to help assemble orders quickly and consistently. This chili spoon spreads the good stuff evenly over a hotdog in one scoop. The tool has been in use as long as employees can remember—some think it may have been invented by Gordy himself.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Ashley Weiser peeks into a vat of Varsity Orange, the restaurant’s house-made orange soda.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

When it comes to the menu, there’s a whole other language to learn. Order a “steak,” and you’ll get a hamburger with ketchup, mustard, and a pickle. A “P.C.” is a “plain chocolate” milk, always served with ice. (Don’t knock it ’til you try it.) Order a “bag of rags” to get potato chips, or ask to “ring one” for a side of onion rings. Here, from left, are a “slaw dog,” a hotdog covered with cole slaw, and a “naked dog,” a plain hotdog with nothing on it.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

“Everything is the same,” says Rebecca Dablah, a thirty-nine-year Varsity veteran, who worked alongside each of her three children at the restaurant before they went to college. “The food is the same, the chili is the same, and the customers are friendly.”

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

The frosted orange—known as an ”F.O.”—began as a Varsity Orange and vanilla ice cream float. Now, it’s evolved to a signature Varsity treat that tastes like a Dreamsicle milkshake. Believe me, serving it up with a perfect swirl isn’t as easy as it looks.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

Although rumors abound about a “secret menu,” the Varsity doesn’t have one—most people just don’t realize they can add pimento cheese, rather than American, to just about anything. That means you can order a pimento chili cheese burger, like this one.

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

After “thirty-eight good old years,” Mary Seda says, “you learn how to deal with people.” Her secret is simple. “When you are happy, you transfer that to your customers.”

photo: Mary Caroline Russell

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