Meet James “Mr. V” Virgil, the disco legend who sells kitchen gear to chefs and designers

Mr. V’s Restaurant Equipment and Store Fixtures has attracted a cult following

Disco legend James “Mr. V” Virgil now sells kitchen gear to chefs and designers
James Virgil owned Mr V’s Figure 8, a nightclub of Atlanta’s disco era.

Photographby Ben Rollins

For more than 20 years, my life has revolved around the moods of a beast, a noisy and badly behaved stainless steel reach-in refrigerator of the kind commonly found in restaurant kitchens. It requires a separate freezer on the side, a faithful Sub-Zero that rarely gives me trouble and produces ice by the bucket. But were it not for the Victory Raetone behemoth that rules my kitchen, I would never have met James Virgil.

Commonly known as “Mr. V,” Virgil operates a restaurant supply store, dealing in mostly used commercial appliances, that attracts a cult following of designers and chefs to his facility in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. I have spent hours squeezing myself down the tightly packed aisles of Mr. V’s Restaurant Equipment and Store Fixtures, where bar coolers, margarita machines, fridges with glass doors, and fryers rotate on an almost daily basis.

The first time I met Mr. V, he handed me a gift—a logoed set of pens in red, white, and blue—as he flashed me one of his infectious, rakish smiles. Photographs in his office alerted me to the fact that the man whose expertise I sought to bring my dead fridge back to life (or find me another just like it) had had another, entirely different life, one in which he was famous, a friend of music producers, actors, and comedians.

Before moving to Atlanta, the Mississippi native ran a club in Chicago. But fame truly came knocking when he opened Mr. V’s Figure 8 on Campbellton Road in Atlanta, during the heyday of TBS. Ted Turner’s station broadcast his commercials (and his face) all over the world. For almost 10 years, the likes of Muhammad Ali, Andrew Young, Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, and Eddie Murphy hung out in a joint billed as classy and with a stringent dress code, as pictures and videos from the ’70s and ’80s attest. Limos fetched celebrities at the airport, and parties went on through the night.

Talking to Mr. V in person is incredibly easy. On the telephone, he thinks that I have too much of a French accent to easily understand, and I would never tell him that his Mississippi drawl and his age (early 80s for sure) make it equally difficult for me. When I asked him whether I should text or email in order to interview him, he told me, “None of it, girl. Just show up. I’ll be at work.” My kind of guy, I thought. Yet I once managed to miss him because I showed up after 2 p.m. on a Saturday, when the store closes.

I spoke to one of his oldest friends, event producer and booking agent Don Rivers, who told me how important to Atlanta’s social scene Mr. V, known locally as the Godfather of Disco, used to be. On another note, chef David Sweeney told me that he received some incentive money from the city to open Dynamic Dish, the best vegan restaurant the city has ever had, on Edgewood Avenue. When he went to Mr. V to buy equipment with the funds, Mr. V, deadpan, said, “Lordy, I never thought I’d get a check from Shirley Franklin!”

Not only does Mr. V sell and resell appliances, but he and his grandson custom-build food trucks, including the one that launched Slutty Vegan into the stratosphere. For more than a decade, Mr. V has told all of us that he is writing a book about his life. Me, I like to hang out in his cluttered office, where young musicians work the computer, or wander through his showroom to look at every greasy pot, pan, or range standing among more exotic accessories. I check the store’s website obsessively.

After 15 years of inaction, my commercial refrigerator was brought back to life by a chef’s refrigeration guy who worked a miracle. But I still like to trawl Mr. V’s facility, open six days a week. When I go, I like to reflect on the fact that, unlike influencers whose main talent is to promote things they barely know about, movers and shakers once relied on their charisma and wisdom—the way James Virgil still does.

This article appears in our April 2024 issue.