The day the burrito died

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Having grown up eating a steady diet of Southern cooking, I never knew how I’d welcome my first burrito.

Needless to say, that burrito was not produced in Naomi Cravey’s South Georgia kitchen.

My first bite of the delightful stuffed tortilla may have originated from the Del Taco where my friends Caroline and Dan worked in Carrollton, Georgia while I was in college or perhaps a few blocks down the street at The Lazy Donkey. But, then again, my first taste of that luscious mixture of beans, chicken, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomato and sauce may have been at El Zarape in Rome, Georgia during a visit to see my sister Carol and her family.

Regardless, the burrito quickly emerged as my favorite Mexican food item. Forget tacos, enchiladas, and especially forget the chalupa. My heart melted with each bite of the burrito. I became a fan almost bordering on evangelist.

But, more importantly, for me the burrito grew to represent community – a time and place to come together with folks I love, catch up on each other’s lives and enjoy each other’s company.

This past weekend, I got to take part in the final days of an iconic burrito shop in Gainesville. Burrito Brothers Taco Co. was founded in 1974 and closed its doors this past Sunday.

Sitting there after we finally got a seat outside after waiting in line more than an hour, I thought back to the very first time I had a Burrito Brothers burrito. It was late 1999 and I was writing for The Jacksonville Business Journal.

My editor at the time – a University of Florida journalism alum – loved Gainesville and UF, but was fanatical about Burrito Brothers. One week, while we sat in the office working away, he had a fellow staffer hop down U.S. 301 and grab us all one burrito each.

The afternoon was one of laughter, comfort food and tales about our favorite Mexican foods and favorite Mexican restaurants. Of course, my editor worked diligently to convince us all that the Burrito Brothers burrito was tops in the world. He argued Burrito Brothers’ process was different because they wrapped their burritos in parchment paper and then wrapped them again in a thin sheet of tin foil, which kept in both the warmth and the moisture. It was a delicate balance of culinary delight.

In 2010, I had the honor of introducing my son to this thing I love. It was a bonding father-son experience to be able to take him to his first trip to Burrito Brothers. We both won that day. I got a great burrito and he got brownie points from State Farm by completing a required driving venture of 50-miles or more for a student insurance discount. I remember when he drove through campus, he looked around and said, ‘I could go to school here.’ That proved prophetic as he graduated last April with a UF bachelor’s degree in biology. Good times.

Often described as a hole in the wall in its early days, Burrito Brothers was not fancy. It had no dining room. Guests simply ordered from a take-out window that was adjacent to an outdoor courtyard. They proved that great food doesn’t always need a fancy building to have a loyal following.

But times change.

Last week, when my son texted me and his mom about Burrito Brothers closing, he said we should come down and partake before it all goes away. We didn’t hesitate.

Since 2015, owner Randy Akerson has been piling up about $300,000 in debt. He credits part of the downward spiral on construction on the condo building The Standard at Gainesville next door. He said the towering structure limited his parking and caused revenue to not just drop but sink. A few online fundraising events have helped, but were not enough.

Beer flowed in Burrito Brothers’ expanded dining room and bar area, while college basketball games played on at least five screens. Wall-to-wall with people, filled to capacity, a playlist of songs filtered the air and conjured up memories that spanned the decades it had been in business.

We joined hundreds of hungry folks who stood in line for hours to grab one last taste of history. And like The Lazy Donkey, El Zarape, and even our own La Napolera, Burrito Brothers will also be remembered as a warm place where I have relaxed and enjoyed one of my favorite things. At least I have the memories.

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