The front exterior of The Varsity.
|Slogan||What'll ya have?|
|Food type||Fast food|
|Street address||61 North Avenue NW (original)|
|Seating capacity||800+ inside and 600 cars (Downtown location)|
|Other locations||[Athens, Georgia|
The Varsity is a restaurant chain, iconic in the modern culture of Atlanta, Georgia. The main branch of the chain is the largest drive-in fast food restaurant in the world. There are now six other branches across metropolitan Atlanta, and another near the University of Georgia in Athens.
Originally named “The Yellow Jacket”, The Varsity was established in 1928 at the corner of Luckie Street and Hemphill Avenue in Midtown Atlanta. Its founder, Frank Gordy of Thomaston, Georgia, a Reinhardt University graduate, briefly attended The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) but dropped out in 1925. Then, as now, the restaurant catered heavily to Georgia Tech students. As the business grew, Gordy was forced to move the restaurant to 61 North Avenue (on the northwest corner of Spring Street). To accommodate the crowds, the present structure now covers two city blocks. It was here that the name was changed to "The Varsity," reflecting his desire to expand to other college campuses. During the drive-in era, The Varsity began its curbside service, which continues to this day.
The current location in Atlanta is now adjacent to the Downtown Connector's interchange with North Avenue. When that freeway (now I-75/85) was built by GDOT, it took out several blocks of Williams Street and much of The Varsity's western parking lot, forcing a parking garage to be erected as a replacement. The restaurant and the Georgia Tech campus sit on opposite sides of the Connector, linked by the North Avenue bridge. The first Athens location opened in 1932.
The enterprise has since expanded to Athens, Kennesaw, Gwinnett County, Alpharetta, and Dawsonville. The Varsity, Jr., located in northeast Atlanta, was the only other location of the chain to offer curbside service. The Varsity, Jr. closed in August 2010 after more than 40 years at that location, after the city of Atlanta failed to approve the chain's plans to replace that building. The plans for the new Varsity, Jr. were instead used for the new location in Dawsonville. In addition, the main location is responsible for more retail sales of Coca-Cola, on an annual basis than any other single location in the world, a record which has stood for many years. The restaurant also offers catering services to the metro Atlanta region for both corporate and non-corporate functions, going as far east as Conyers and Stone Mountain, Georgia.
There is also a mini-Varsity on the campus of Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. Frank Gordy met his wife, Evelyn, at Reinhardt in 1924 and went on to Georgia Tech to finish his education. Their custom-designed home was later moved from Atlanta to the Reinhardt University campus. The Gordy family gave part of their land to Cobb County for what is now the Mountain View campus of Chattahoochee Technical College and the Mountain View Aquatics Center, the rest was sold in the 1990s for upscale tract housing and strip malls. Gordy Parkway, a loop named for Frank Gordy, serves all of these.
One of the best-known employees at the Varsity was Erby Walker, who worked there for fifty-five years until he died in 2008. He started at the Varsity at the age of fifteen sweeping floors, and was nearly fired on the first day, but soon graduated to the kitchen. Mr. Walker was noted for his ability to move the service line quickly, especially during the rush period right before a Georgia Tech football game. His signature catchphrase was, "Have your money out and your food on your mind, and I'll getcha to the game on time!" He retired in 2003, but came back three weeks later. That year Walker was inducted into the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Comedian Nipsey Russell began his entertainment career at The Varsity in the 1940s as a carhop. The creative and resourceful Russell would dress in a flamboyant style and pepper his order-taking duties with jokes and amusing songs, thereby earning him extra tips. U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all visited The Varsity during their terms in office. Mad artist Jack Davis has done advertising for The Varsity.
Over the years The Varsity has become synonymous in Atlanta's folklore with a clever and unorthodox catchphrase. Originated by frazzled cashiers as a way to keep the lines moving, the blunt and abbreviated greeting "What'll ya have?" caught on with both staff and public and eventually became the restaurant's unofficial slogan. Today, the catchphrase appears on takeout boxes and cups as well as Varsity memorabilia and is the required greeting to all customers.
Along with 'What'll ya have?" the Varsity staff, as was common practice, developed their own jargon when calling out orders. Being a restaurant with an open grill, the customers could overhear the staff's slang and eventually began adopting it as their own when placing orders. Recognizing that the customers enjoyed being 'in on the joke' the Varsity eventually began listing its items with both their conventional and jargon references on both their overhead and printed menus.
- Junior's Grill - another Georgia Tech dining tradition; closed in 2011.
- What'll Ya Have: A History of the Varsity. Dick Parker. Looking Glass Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-929619-18-4
- Images of America: The Varsity. Janice McDonald. Arcadia Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7385-8797-4
- "The Varsity Downtown". thevarsity.com. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
- Conroy, Pat (2004-11-14). "Cheese Dogs, My Father And Me". Parade. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2016-05-16.
- "World's Largest Drive-In". Free Enterprise Land. Archived from the original on August 23, 2013. Retrieved January 26, 2016.
- "Atlanta Icons: The Varsity". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 2007-08-03.
- "Tech Timeline: 1920s". Georgia Tech Alumni Association. Archived from the original on 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2007-08-03.
- "Georgia Tech Living History Program: The Varsity". Retrieved 2015-04-13.
- Woods, Walter (2002-06-07). "What'll ya have, Alpharetta?". Atlanta Business Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-08-03.
- "Erby Walker, Varsity counterman". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved May 16, 2016.
Erby Walker was inducted into the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2003. This photo was taken at at The Varsity in the 1970s.
- Holley, Joe (2005-10-03). "Rhyming Funnyman Nipsey Russell Dies". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-08-03.
- "A Hot Dog Program". WQED Multimedia: Television. WQED. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- Parker, D.: What'll Ya Have: A History of the Varsity, page 68. Looking Glass Books, 2003.
- The Varsity, The Fun Place To Eat. The Varsity.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Varsity.|
- Official website
- Then (1953) / Now (2004) photo of The Varsity
- Then (1963) / Now (2003) photo of The Varsity