Serving up hot dogs, nostalgia Frankfurters: At The Varsity, a 70-year-old diner in Atlanta, customers can purchase red-hots made to order -- whether loaded with extra chili or plain 'nekkid.'

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- "You don't want to eat these things naked," says Marvin Roberts, pronouncing it "nekkid." But a lot of people do.

Relax. Roberts, 50, of Atlanta, isn't naked and neither is his hot dog. In fact, it's loaded with chili and cole slaw -- a specialty of The Varsity, a 70-year-old Atlanta institution. "Nekkid" hot dogs, an ungarnished sausage on a plain bun -- "They just aren't any good," says Roberts.


The Varsity is decorated like a 1950s-style diner with yellow-and-white Formica tabletops and vinyl seats. But it is as big inside as an aircraft hangar, and its conveyor belt can serve 1,000 hot dogs a minute to hungry Atlantans and visitors.

The place has a rhythm and a language of its own.


"What'll ya have? What'll ya have?" shout the servers as they race from one end of the 30-foot-long counter to the other, grabbing hot dogs off the conveyor belt and slapping spoonfuls of chili on them.

The menu includes the "nekkid" dog and the "heavyweight," a hot dog with extra chili. And the "red dog" with ketchup or the "yellow dog" (or "Yankee dog") with mustard. Any of which can be called a "walk a dog," if it is a hot dog to go.

Melvian Reese, 45, bellows out the orders: "What'll ya have? What'll ya have?" as she races from the conveyor belt to the counter.

"Four nekkid dogs, five slaw dogs and six F.O.s coming to ya," she says. An F.O. is a frosted orange drink.

The chants of employees like Reese help make The Varsity popular.

"The food is not that great, but it's a place that gets every flavor of people, every shape, size and look to come," Roberts says. "Even the presidents come here. This is a common-denominator-type thing. They all come here for a hot dog."

Some longtime patrons joke that because most of Atlanta's historic buildings were burned to the ground during Sherman's Civil War campaign, The Varsity is one of the few landmarks worth seeing.

A group from the Second Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., ranks The Varsity third -- right after the Martin Luther King museum and the Six Flags amusement park -- on its list of places to see in Atlanta during a weekend tour. The 50 senior citizens, teen-agers and professionals gawk at the multi-level conveyor belt that keeps hot dogs and buns steadily moving from the kitchen to the customers.


"Wow!" says Shirley J. Simmons, 64, as she stands in line and watches trays of onion rings and hot dogs pass her. "I can't believe this place is so popular and so fast. You don't find chili dogs like these at any ballpark."

Georgia Tech students constitute perhaps the restaurant's largest group of customers. For a time, The Varsity's founder, Frank Gordy, was himself a student. Then, in 1928, he flunked out.

Gordy opened a chili dog stand in the back of his brother's gas station just across the street from the campus on North Avenue. Cashing checks for students on the side, Gordy's business took off. Now, four Varsity restaurants operate in Atlanta and Athens, Ga.

"It started in a tiny room of a filling station and now we get at least 50 tour buses a week in here," says Gordon Muir, secretary of The Varsity, who claims to eat at least one nekkid dog a day.

In a day, The Varsity sells more than 12,000 hot dogs -- that's two miles of hot dogs -- 300 gallons of chili, 2,500 pounds of potatoes and 2,000 pounds of onions.

On a weekend of a Georgia Tech football game, some 30,000 football fans have been known to storm The Varsity. "When those guys are in here, it's nothing for us to go through 1,000 dogs a minute," says Gary Cobb, The Varsity's operations manager.


Over the years, the menu has changed, but only slightly. Most of the 1950s delicacies are still there, from the egg salad sandwiches on toasted white bread to the frosted orange F.O.

"The only thing that's changed is the price of the food," says Louis Jones, who has been a carhop for 42 years.

Only the "light" hot dogs -- which promised a lower fat content -- flopped. Hot dog connoisseurs complained that "light" dogs broke the tradition of grease that came with eating at The Varsity.

Southern traditions

Joe Hudson, 60, bites into a chili dog and the steaming chili streams down his hand. "These are real hot dogs," he says. "I was born and raised in Atlanta, gone for years, and now I'm back and I can tell you these are world-renowed dogs. The taste is seasoned. No fillers in the hot dogs. They're just tasty."

His brother, John Hudson, 63, adds: "This is The Varsity. This isn't McDonald's."


In keeping with Southern tradition, The Varsity serves buttermilk by the glass and fried pies: deep-fried turnovers filled with sweet apple or peach preserves.

The pride of The Varsity in downtown Atlanta is the drive-in. At one time, it was said to be one of the largest in the country, with 600 parking spaces.

The carhops are mostly men in their 50s and 60s who proudly say they've survived downpours and heat waves selling hot dogs. They recall when they used to chase cars down what was then a two-lane road into The Varsity's parking lot. Comedian Nipsey Russell once worked as a carhop.

When a freeway split the Georgia Tech campus from The Varsity, the drive-in was cut almost in half in exchange for added indoor seating. There are five rooms -- three with televisions -- where patrons can choose to watch soap operas, news or sports. Some of the rooms look like classrooms with desks in straight lines.

Fun food

Patrons are eager to recall the last time they ate, worked, celebrated a birthday, held an office party or took a niece or nephew to The Varsity.


Sandy Lehmann of Atlanta beams at her two children as they eat chili dogs and onion rings. "You guys," she says, "Elvis Presley used to eat here all the time." She points a painted red nail toward the drive-in area. "He'd sit right out there and they'd come and watch him eat his chili dog."

At a nearby table, Betty Maddos blots her lipstick as her husband rolls up his sleeves before eating a mound of onion rings, french fries and four chili and slaw dogs. She chuckles, trying to estimate how many times she has come to The Varsity. Almost 100 times, she decides. The couple lives 20 miles outside of Atlanta, but they plan their weekend outings around stopping at The Varsity.

"I've been coming here ever since I was a teen-ager," says Betty Maddos, 65. "We would come here in a group of six girls, all piled into a car, and we couldn't even afford to eat most nights.

"We'd just get something to drink and watch the people come in and just hang out."

It is a success, founded on a nongourmet food, that few believe can be duplicated.

"The place is a combination of tradition, nostalgia and a throwback diner style," says Russ Whitacre, manager of the Virginia-based Oscar Mayer WeinerMobile, the hot-dog maker's promotional vehicle. "They're making it off of a simple food that people love to indulge in eating. They have fun with hot dogs. That's what hot dogs are all about."


Pub Date: 8/24/98