Surrounded by about 15 employees in his kitchen Saturday night, an anguished Randy Akerson folded his restaurant’s last burrito — a flour tortilla stuffed with beef, beans, cheese, sour cream and lettuce.
“It was heartbreaking,” said the white-haired, bespectacled owner of Burrito Brothers Taco Co., a restaurant that became one of Gainesville’s most prized institutions over the past 40 years.
By Akerson’s account, the restaurant was strangled to death over the past 15 months — since construction on The Standard at Gainesville began next door, limiting parking and causing revenues to sink.
Since 2015, the restaurant sunk into a $300,000 hole. Fundraisers helped but ultimately weren’t enough to keep the doors open at 1402 W. University Ave.
Its last day was marked by snaking lines of customers waiting on the sidewalk to get inside.
It had a total of 508 transactions — with an average of about three to four burritos per transaction, compared to the daily 150-customer average. The restaurant sold about 1,500 burritos Saturday. It started turning people away at about 6:30 p.m. — after all of its food was gone.
The last burrito Akerson rolled under his roof was a symbolic gesture, he said, and it was meant to honor a dear friend and customer who died a few years back.
“The last one was for him, wherever he is,” Akerson said.
Forty years ago, a thinner, younger Akerson prepared the restaurant’s first burrito, back when he wrote the restaurant’s “Guac” sign by hand whenever he had ripe avocados. Now, closing the restaurant for the last time was not nearly as hard as saying goodbye to the restaurant’s employees — his family.
“I’m beyond grateful,” Akerson said. “I’ve never been able to pay them as much as I’d like to, but they know I’ve always paid them as well as I could.”
As for his neon-green “Guac” sign, which long stood as a lighthouse for devoted customers, Akerson said he plans on auctioning it off on eBay.
“It’s kind of an icon, I guess,” he said, “but I’d lose my mind if I had to wake up every morning and see it in my living room. So depressing.”
After news spread of the restaurant’s imminent closure, throngs of customers lined up for one last bite, straining Akerson’s workforce and food supply. He ran out of food every night last week.
Employees had to work hard to serve five to six times more customers than usual, Akerson said. And although they had no breaks, many showed up as early as 4 a.m., without being asked, to start each day.
“Loyalty like that can’t be purchased,” Akerson said. “I’m really proud of those kids.”
The employees stood behind the restaurant’s bar in a row as Akerson thanked them for their help at about 4:25 p.m. Saturday. They held hands and draped their arms over each other’s shoulders.
“I never could have done what I have done over the years without people like this and the ones that came before them,” Akerson said over the microphone used to call out orders. “God bless them, god love them.”
Akerson said he’s always tried to be there for them, going as far as making loans in the past to help out some of his employees with tuition.
That mentality earned him the nicknames of “dad” and “grandpa,” despite not having any kids of his own.
Adam Mickler, 23, a Burrito Bros. manager who worked at the restaurant for nearly five years, said he enjoyed being a part of a local business.
“Seeing the person you work for every day is f------ amazing,” he said, adding that he has no idea where he’ll work next.
Employees opened the restaurant at 11 a.m. and worked until they sold the last burrito at about 6:30 p.m.
By the afternoon, the restaurant ran out of food and drinks. Staff started writing what customers couldn’t order on a blackboard hanging over the bar. People who wanted sweet potatoes, soft tacos, corn salsa or cabbage were out of luck. The last pitcher of beer was sold at 3 p.m.
Michelle Tomlinson, 18, said she couldn’t order a pork burrito because the restaurant had run out of pork. She was debating between chorizo or chicken.
“I would get two burritos, but that’s a lot of money,” the UF biology freshman said.
Jim O’Sullivan, 44, ordered three burritos, two for him and one for his wife.
“Maybe I’ll have the other tomorrow,” he said.
Mike Thenn, 52, said he drove two hours from Orlando for his last Burrito Bros. meal, consisting of a burrito and taco. He said he would have driven five hours.
“It was well worth it,” he said. “We have lots of good memories here.”
Since he graduated in the ‘80s, Thenn has often traveled back to Gainesville for UF basketball games, always stopping at Burrito Bros. before going to the O’Connell Center.
But with the season in full swing, and his favorite restaurant on its last leg, he said he would need to start a new ritual.
“There are plenty of options, but it won’t be the same,” he said. “We are losing a tradition.”
For Kim Le, 18, Saturday was a first. She waited for an hour before her chicken burrito was ready, but she said she was glad to partake in some Gainesville history.
“I’ve been wanting to go,” the UF biology freshman said. “We chose to come in between lunch and dinner. There’s a shorter wait now.”
After closing the restaurant, the employees, Randy and his wife took pictures together in front of the restaurant’s logo. They hugged each other and cried on each other’s shoulders as they said goodbye.
Many employees had already packed up souvenirs: menus, wine glasses and as many T-shirts as they could find.
Jack O’Connor, the staff’s longest-working employee, took the restaurant’s final serving of chips and guacamole for a friend.
“It’s for my friend Gabi,” said O’Connor, who was hired in October 2005. “It’s in honor of her. She grew up here. I met her here.”
As for Akerson, he said he plans to spend the next four months hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“I want to be alone with my thoughts to deal with this level of grief,” he said.