Friday, April 20, 2018
Restaurants

Two University of Florida alumni make one last trek from St. Petersburg to their beloved Burrito Bros. Taco Co.

It was a headline we hoped to never read as alumni: "Burrito Bros. to close down Saturday, owner confirms."

The online story posted Jan. 30 by the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper of our alma mater the University of Florida, clouded our social media feeds.

Rapid-fire texts, and expletives, ensued.

"I need to mourn."

"Oh no."

"Dude let's go."

Within three minutes that Monday morning, we had decided: From St. Petersburg, we were going to make the roughly six-hour, 300-mile round-trip pilgrimage to Gainesville after work on Wednesday — all for one last taste of the college town's beloved edible institution.

Burrito Bros. Taco Co., home of red sauce, the best guacamole anywhere and the delectable pairing of freshly squeezed limeade and plump beef and bean burritos, was set to close Feb. 4 after a 40-year run, much of the latter years spent in a literal hole-in-the-wall on the side of a church across the street from UF. The owners blame their slow death on limited parking, construction next door and two canceled home football games. Those guilty will forever have Burrito Bros.' blood on their hands.

Burrito Bros. to Gainesville is like CDB's Pizza to the University of South Florida, Momo's Pizza to Florida State University, the Lazy Moon Pizza to the University of Central Florida — a college tradition passed down through generations of disciples who salivated whenever its name was invoked. For us, those disciples were an older brother and an aunt who worked in UF's business school across the street.

As college students (we graduated in 2015) with a craving for Burrito Bros., we braved storms and flooding that threatened to cancel classes. We never minded the wait. Sometimes we thought twice when the neon "GUAC" sign — a beacon that signaled fresh, available guacamole — was dimmed, but going to Chipotle next door would have been sacrilegious.

This was the restaurant one of us slogged to in the rain with no boots or umbrella just to have a taste. These were the burritos that put our friendship at stake when one of us swapped the foil-wrapped treasures in our takeout order, leaving the pinto bean lover with the black beans and vice versa.

It was personal.

One last taste

The Wednesday before they closed, we left too close to the afternoon traffic jam, detouring through a gridlock in Tampa before we got to Interstate 275. We reminisced about Burrito Bros. meals while playing songs from simpler times.

We took the Newberry Road exit in Gainesville, picked up a friend and beelined to the brick-and-mortar storefront steps away from the hole-in-the wall location we knew as students.

We barged in at 8 p.m., one hour before closing time, and marched up to the register.

"We're out of food," the cashier said. "We stopped selling an hour ago."

We turned to each other, eyes wide. But we came from St. Petersburg!

One of the owners, Janet Akerson, stepped up.

"Can you come tomorrow?" she asked.

No, we couldn't. We had work the next day.

Janet slammed her hand on the counter, shook her head and uttered a swear word. They had run out of food for the second day in a row.

"Hang on," she said.

They only had beef and chicken. No beans, no rice, no sour cream, no limeade, no guac. Nonetheless, they scraped up what they could and rolled it into warm tortillas. We ordered pints of beer brewed a bike ride away to make the morose celebration complete.

We sat there, chewing mostly in silence, savoring every bite, officially the last customers of the night. The owners sneaked us a few dipping containers of red sauce. We saved two for colleagues, UF alums who wished they could have made the voyage.

Janet, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Randy, is a native of St. Petersburg, a graduate of Boca Ciega High. She knew how far we had come and thanked us for making the trip.

We said goodbye, but couldn't head home just yet. We picked up pizza slices and rolls from Leonardo's, another Gainesville institution that will close its doors later this year, and took a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to our college newspaper's new headquarters, the ratty ex-fraternity house we came up in razed last year for new development.

Only three newspaper staffers recognized us, and we realized the town that was once our own had moved on. Just like us, just like Burrito Bros. — an institution we thought would live on until we could whisper the legend to our younger siblings or nieces and nephews.

Randy helped us make sense of all the change days later. We called him that Sunday, the day after they had closed. He was at the restaurant, gearing up for a Super Bowl party with the staff and drinking a pilsner. He was winding down from Burrito Bros.' final day, the busiest day in the restaurant's history, when the line wrapped around the building and the elusive guacamole ran out by 1 p.m.

He offered this bit of wisdom: "You are born. One day you will die. Business is no different."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @Colleen_Wright and @kathrynvarn.

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