ATLANTA -- "What'll ya have? What'll ya have? What'll ya have?"
That mantra is as familiar to Georgians as the Pledge of Allegiance, and many
have heard it since childhood. Since 1928, The Varsity restaurant has been
welcoming diners with that question and serving up fresh, made-from-
scratch fare like burgers, dogs, french fries and maybe the world's best onion
rings from its landmark location at North Ave. and Spring St. in downtown
There are a half-dozen Varsity outlets across the state, but none matches the
original for ambience or volume. Billed as the world's largest drive-in, the
downtown Varsity serves as many as 25,000 people per day, dishing up two
miles of hot dogs, 300 gallons of chili, a ton of onion rings, 2,500 pounds of
potatoes and 5,000 made-from-scratch fruit turnovers daily. The restaurant
is the single-largest dispenser of "Coca-Cola" in the world, and has been for
years, according to both the restaurant and the soft drink giant.
The two-story building seats 800 diners in a handful of rooms configured to
accommodate everyone from singles-on-the-go to large parties. The five-
acre lot covers two city blocks, with room to park 600 vehicles. Carhops --
comedian Nipsey Russell got his start here -- still provide curbside service,
and about 10-15 percent of diners take advantage of that.
Featured on television and in countless magazine and newspaper articles, The
Varsity draws visitors from around the world. But nothing prepares one for
the real thing. Stepping through the doors is like entering a time machine.
The experience is both familiar and surreal.
"What'll ya have, what'll ya have, what'll ya have?" The mantra rings out again
and again as crowds throng the counters. Behind the line is an endless flurry
of activity. Meat sizzles at one station, while fry zones focus on rings and
spuds; the hiss sounds almost like a roaring crowd.
The Varsity experience is a rite of passage for Georgians, so unique that it
has even spawned its own lingo. A plain hamburger is a "naked steak." A
wiener to go is a "dog walking." French fries are "strings". A Frosted Orange is
an "F-O," an original concoction that is part milkshake, part frozen citrus
treat - and for decades a big part of The Varsity's appeal.
Preparation starts early. More than 40 workers spend their mornings
shredding fresh cabbage for coleslaw and lettuce for condiments, pulling
apart heads of green leaf lettuce for sandwiches and salads, slicing fresh
tomatoes, separating large yellow onion rings for frying, grinding beef that
arrives each morning from Texas, and prepping 2,500 pounds of fresh
potatoes in a specially made slicer that comes from Europe. Other workers
put together a 300-gallon batch of chili and start steaming the first of the
day's hot dogs, which are specially made by a local manufacturer from the
original Varsity recipe.
In another room, workers cut up apples and prepare peaches; while those
simmer in kettles, the ancient pie machine -- designed by late Varsity
founder Frank Gordy and regularly "McGuyvered" by current Manager Terry
Brookshire -- begins stamping out homemade dough.
For 10 years, Mr. Brookshire has been charged with running the show at The
Varsity -- and he is well aware that it is a show. He first came to the
restaurant as a child; in fact, his "Star Wars" toys slept on a bed made from a
paper Varsity hat.
"It can really be stressful, but it's really awesome, too," Mr. Brookshire said of
his charge. "You're standing on a legacy, and you've got to carry it on. Every
day I get a little more appreciative of what it means. People tell me, 'I met my
wife there' or 'We came here after our wedding.' Now that we've been on TV
so much, people come from as far away as Oregon. I feel a big sense of
obligation. A lot of people only come once or twice a year, but when they do
come, it's got to be perfect: the dining rooms spotless, the bathrooms
spotless, and the food has to be as good as the first time they came."
To make sure of that, the surprisingly trim Mr. Brookshire samples every item
on the menu daily. Shipments arrive each morning except Sunday, and there
are never any leftovers. Produce items come from Atlanta's Sutherland's
Foodservice Inc. -- and have for 50 years, though The Varsity plays a major
role in sourcing its own supplies.
The Varsity uses yellow onions for its famous rings because "the white ones
break up too easily," Mr. Brookshire said. Potatoes come from Idaho, and "we
like them to stay [around] 70-80 count. There's a lot of things that go into a
good frying potato."
The Varsity does not skimp on quality at any level. Ice cream comes from a
premium manufacturer. Even condiments are top of the line.
Patrons appreciate the fact that things have not changed at The Varsity for 82
years, and they feel compelled to return that loyalty. "Customers feel a
responsibility to spread the word," Mr. Brookshire said. "It's like you're
sharing a great secret."
A list of those privy to that great secret reads like a who's who of American
arts and politics. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy is a regular patron. Elvis Presley
used to send his minions over to pick up chili dogs. Muhammad Ali came by
during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr.
have visited. So have Mitt Romney, Laura Bush and John Kerry. Ryan Seacrest
recently stopped by. Clark Gable came years ago. Katie Couric worked a shift
behind the counter; so did NASCAR star Kurt Busch. Roger Staubach, Clay
Aiken, Bill Cosby, Ted Turner, Tim Conway, Burt Reynolds, Bob Hope, Jimmy
Buffet, Joe Montana, Evander Holyfield - the list goes on and on.
The famous come for the same reasons the hoi polloi has turned out in
droves for 82 years: great food in a unique setting combined with a chance to
be a small part of history.
"Nothing changes. We don't like to change at The Varsity -- we go out of our
way not to change. People don't want their Varsity to change," Mr. Brookshire
said. "And I don't either."
(For more about the Atlanta market, see the May 17, 2010, issue of The