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Feb/March 2005

Atlanta's Legendary Restaurant Chains
Combining Local Flavor with Local History
by Carrie Whitney

The Big Chicken is one of the state's most
recognized landmarks. Photo: CCCVB
While Atlanta may be known as a haven for gourmands with innovative new restaurants opening just about weekly, three local eateries have withstood the test of time. Throughout the years, The Big Chicken, The Varsity and the Waffle House have become legendary, much more to Atlantans than just a place to grab a meal. But what is the story behind each legend? Together the three boast 169 years of Atlanta history involving urban myths, community outcry and hotdog conveyer belts.

The Big Chicken
What stands today as the state's most unique Kentucky Fried Chicken began decades ago as Johnny Reb's Restaurant. In order to rise above growing competition for diners, in 1963, owner Tubby Davis hired Georgia Tech grad Hubert Puckett to create a giant steel structure of a chicken to attract attention for his chicken and burger joint in Marietta. In its early days in front of the restaurant on U.S. 41, the chicken's eyes and beak moved and its comb blew in the breeze. Understandably, the Big Chicken soon became an easily recognized landmark. Over time, the chicken began to fall into disrepair, and his eyes and beak stopped working.

Meanwhile, Davis sold the restaurant to his brother in 1966 who ran it for eight years until KFC leased the restaurant in 1974. Construction of I-75 moved a lot of traffic off U.S. 41, decreasing the volume of the restaurant. A 1993 storm caused serious damage to the chicken, and KFC hesitated to repair the structure. But overwhelming public support throughout the metro-area soon had the chicken looking good again, and the eyes and beak were repaired, too.

Forty-two years later, the Big Chicken is still operating 56 feet above the large KFC. People continue to use it as a landmark, and businesses locate themselves in advertisements by declaring, "one mile south of the Big Chicken" or "go left at the Big Chicken." Inside, Big Chicken memorabilia and souvenirs are for sale along with Colonel Sander's fried chicken.

The Varsity. Photo: GDED
The Varsity
"What'll ya have? What'll ya have?" For visitors to The Varsity, these words are definitely familiar. Known for its chili cheese dogs, onion rings, Frosted Orange drink and fried pies, the first Varsity was opened in 1928 by Frank Gordy. The original, called The Yellow Jacket, sat on a 70 x 120-foot lot at the corner of Luckie Street and North Avenue. Times have changed, and The Varsity today covers two city blocks at 61 North Avenue. When Gordy began offering curb service, who knew that within a few years, the Varsity would employ more than 100 "Car Hops." Always wanting to stay ahead of the game, he designed equipment like a hot dog conveyer belt and pie-making machine to keep up with quality and demand. The restaurant became so popular and busy that he added a parking deck. Today, The Varsity is the world's largest drive-in and can accommodate up to 600 cars and more than 800 people at a time. Beware of Georgia Tech football game days when more than 30,000 people visit the restaurant.

Despite the mass numbers of diners, the service remains quick and efficient. Behind the stainless steel counter, the 20 or so animated cashiers still yell, "What'll ya have, what'll ya have?"

Waffle House founders, oe Rogers, Sr. (right) and
Tom Forkner, in one of their restaurants.
Waffle House
Today there are 1450 Waffle House restaurants in 25 states, but it all started right here in Atlanta when Joe Rogers, Sr. and Tom Forkner opened the very first Waffle House on Labor Day 1955 in Avondale Estates. The founders' goal was to create a restaurant focused on people while serving quality food at a great value. Each restaurant is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year leading to the urban myth that "Waffle House doors have no locks." Historically, Christmas has been the busiest day of the year!

Since 1955, the Waffle House System has served more than 442,451,500 waffles (and still counting!). The restaurants serve more than 10,000 T-Bone steaks a day, and are, of course, the world's leading server of waffles. Part of the "Waffle House Experience" is the jukebox including favorite classics such as "Good Food Fast," "Waffle Doo Wop" and "Waffle House Family." While there are 30 Waffle House songs, 10 were chosen for a "Best Of" Waffle House CD a few years ago. Currently, there are more than 200 Waffle Houses in the Atlanta area, explaining why there are sometimes two or three at the same highway exit. However, each Waffle House has its own personality and through the years, they have all maintained their own loyal followings. This vast empire is still administered locally; its corporate headquarters are located in Norcross.

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