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A ton of onion rings and 2,500 pounds of fresh fries daily at Atlanta's landmark Varsity restaurant

by Chip Carter | May 12, 2010
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 Atlanta.

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 Produce News.)