"Whatdyahave, whatdyahave, whatdyahave," yells Erby Walker from behind the stainless steel counter. "Talk to me, talk to me, talk to me."
"A hamburger to go," replies the customer.
"A steak allaway - 40 - thank you - next, whadyahave, whadyahave, whadyahave . . ."
In the parking lot of what must be the world's largest hamburger drive-in, two elderly women are sitting in a blue Lincoln Continental. A man in his 60s, dressed in white jacket and tie and sporting a plastic helmet blossoming with red, white, yellow, and blue flowers, is standing at the driver's window. He is singing the menu to them.
"That's Flossie," says drive-in curb manager Willie Thorton. "He's been singing the menu at The Varsity since 1935. Ain't no one can sing a menu like Flossie. People come from all around to see him."
But before Flossie, there was another curb waiter named "Snake Eyes," whose comedy routine was almost as good as Rochester's. And some say Rochester was as quick-witted a curb boy as Nipsy Russell, whose number 46 as a curb boy has been retired with all the reverence given Hank Aaron's No. 44. Though The Varsity is but a restaurant in name, it is unquestionably center stage for all of Atlanta. The attendance is astounding.
"I may have the biggest crowd in my 50-year history this Saturday," said 62-year-old Frank Gordy recently. The small hot dog stand he opened in 1928 has become the South's most successful restaurant. "There's a rock concert over at the stadium and I'm expecting mayby 40,000 people."
But for Gordy and the 210 people who work at The Varsity, 40,000 people is just 2,000 more than what a good football Saturday brings. And during the week, when crowds dwindle to 15,000 customers a day, Gordy still finds enough things to do to keep him busy.
"I just walk around and make sure everybody has got what they need," said Gordy, whose North Avenue restaurant now grosses more than $5 million a year. "I learned a long time ago people didn't come in here 'caust I'm good-looking."
Nevertheless, they do come in, and the figures of one day's sales are as handsome as they come. In a 15-hour day (7 a.m.-12 p.m.) Varsity crowds gobble an average of 1,500 pounds of onion rings, 4,000 pounds of potatoes (french fries), 25,000 hot dogs, and 18,000 hamburgers. In addition The Varsity sells more Coke products (8,300 a day) than any other place in the world.
To Atlantans, this hamburger joint is an institution, a place where everyone eats sooner or later. Located on two acres of land just off Interstate 75, near downtown, The Varsity can seat 414 customers and let as many stand. Out side in the double-decker parking lot, curb service waiters cater to as many as 600 cars. Traffic jams at The Varsity are so common that Gordy spends $40,000 a year alone on policemen.
Inside, crowds line the 200-feet steel counter and the 10-feet wide hallway. Behind the counter Erby Walker and "Booty" Thompson bark out orders which are carried out with assembly-line accuracy, as two conveyor belts rush the food the customers. It is matter of seconds. The varsity food service is faster than a vending machine with pneumatic tubes.
With a television in each of its five lunchrooms, businessmen will often catch the news while downing the famous Varsity chili dogs ("the chili recipe is a secret," says Gordy) or eating the onion rings. The Varsity is the spot for morning coffee or an afternoon beer. It is the rallying point before and after Atlanta sports events. Secretaries watch the soaps there. Monday night football and baseball pack the place. And everyone - from Mayor Maynard Jackson to Telly savalas to Jimmy Carter - eats or has eaten at The Varsity. Even Frank Gordy. "A couple of chili dogs a day keep you young," said Gordy, whose attention to the quality of his food is as well known as the restaurant itself. "We have no food over 12 hours old. It's been that way since I started this place."
The Horatio Alger tale of Frank Gordy and his hot dog stand is often told, but seldom told accurately. One popular version is that Gordy, while a freshman at Georgia Tech in 1926, was told he had to leave school because "he was too dumb to cook a hot dog. Well, old Frank Gordy sure showed them . . ." goes the story.
Actually Gordy left Georgia Tech on his own volition in 1926, telling his classmates he would be worth $20,000 by the time they graduated. He transferred to Oglethorpe University where he stayed a short while before going a brief stint in the Florida real estate business.
In the fall of 1926 he returned to Atlanta and opened a small hot dog stand on Lucky Avenue. Because he was catering to college students who he felt needed a "simple meat-and-potatoes place to eat," he gave his hot dog stand the collegiate title, The varsity. Two years later he moved to his present location on bustling North Avenue (the just a quiet neighborhood) and made $49 the first day. Two years later, when his friends in the class of '26 was receiving diplomas, Frank Gordy was worth $40,000.
"I guess I am a little like Jimmy Carter," said Gordy in a gentle Southern accent. "I meant to succeed from the beginning."
Gordy says he has been successful because of three things: his willingness to serve the best-quality food and condiments possible; making as many friends as customers; and the willingness to adhere to the same format he had almost a half-century ago when he started.
"I have never changed the format here. I'm doing it today like I did 50 years ago," said Gordy. "If anything has changed it's the customers, not The Varsity."
Indeed, people have changed with the times at the world's largest drive-in. In the early days women did not go in The Varsity, and they're still not hired as curb waiters today. Up until 1967 blacks were not allowed to eat within The Varsity but had to get their food to go.
Today, however, it seems that a member of every social class, race, and age group in Atlanta is represented in the restaurant at lunchtime. It is not unusual to see a businessman in a Brooks Brothers suit standing next to a young woman in a bathing suit or a construction worker in a T-shirt. Outside lunch trays hang from the front windows of both Cadillacs and pick-up trucks, as old vaudeville-type curb men like Flossie, who wears a different hat every day, sing the same old menu song.
"I eat here because the food is good every day," said Jack Clark, a 51-year-old development engineer. "Just watching the professionalism of the people who serve you is entertaining. There's no other place like it in the world."
Tommy Bullington, a 27-year-old warehouse supervisor, feels the same.
"I drove 10 miles just to pick this up," said Bullington, holding up a box of Varsity fries and hamburgers. "For the money, the Varsity can't be beat."
These are the kind of comments Frank Gordy likes to hear - and he does. Gordy spends very little of his time in his 8-by-10 cubicle office ("I just hang my coat there.") He is out walking around, speaking to people, directing the crowds, and retrieving napkins for customers. Some members of the staff believe that is the reason Gordy succeeds.
"Everything that man does is right," said day manager Willie thorton. "And he does it his way. Our Gordy even designed this building just the way he wanted it without an architect."
Expansion has been a regular occurence with The Varsity; Gordy now operates a Varsity Jr. in Atlanta and two smaller Varsities in Athens, Ga., home of the University of Georgia. But with the heavy demand at the original Varsity at North Avenue, Frank Gordy is thinking of more building there. "As soon as we get the go-ahead we're going to add another parking lot in back of this one," said Gordy, a customers breezed by with the red and white Varsity lunchboxes brimming with onion rings, chili dogs, and big orange drinks. "I think we can get another couple of hundred in here."