Burritos on the move

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 4:11 a.m.
With a baseball cap he bought at a flea market pulled down to his brow, Jared Reckamp pours 130 small cups of red sauce. The smell of pinto beans fills the steamy air, and the Rolling Stones play in the background.
For the past 30 years, this is more or less how it's worked at Burrito Brothers, a tiny little taco company that's created a cult of obsessed customers. So obsessed, in fact, that they willingly squeeze into a 350 square-foot building just for a chance to taste the famous primo burrito once again.
In the coming days, Burrito Brothers will serve its last tacos out of the restaurant on NW 13th Street that has become a Gainesville landmark. The restaurant will move to a new location adjacent to the Presbyterian Student Center on W. University Avenue very soon, though an exact date has yet to be set.
Setting up picnic tables at the new location two weeks ago, Burrito Brothers owner Randy Akerson appeared a man with no regrets. While the move may mark the end of an era, it's one Akerson says he's all too happy to put behind him.
"You can sit down and eat your burrito for the first time in 30 years," he says, smiling at his wife and co-owner, Janet Akerson.
With no available seating, Burrito Brothers customers have always been left to fend for themselves, toting brown bags full of Mexican food a few yards from the restaurant, only to devour the meal on curb sides and car roofs. Akerson knows that the often inconvenient dining ritual is also a part of the charm of Burrito Brothers. And since he agreed to open his first franchise in Tampa, Akerson says there's been talk that his well-earned street cred' is at risk.
"It concerns me a little," he says with a shrug, chalking his worry up to "Swedish Lutheran guilt."
Akerson says he's resisting some changes that might paint him as a sellout. When his new franchising partner, 33-year-old Ryan McDonald, suggested using the catchphrase "Holy Guacamole, that's great food," Akerson responded with "Over my dead body."
"I suggested, 'Burrito Brothers - We Won't Hurt You,' " said Akerson, 54.
Some customers might need a little extra assurance that Burrito Brothers is a safe place, Akerson concedes. A great many of Gainesville's most pierced and tattooed residents have worked in the restaurant over the years, creating an atmosphere that borders on bizarre carnival.
"They're good human beings, they just have unfortunate choices in body decoration," said Akerson, who wears round spectacles and shows no visible tattoos.
The staff may be avant-garde, but much of Akerson's client base is equally quirky. Since the move was announced, customers have asked whether they can buy bricks from the old building, considered sacred ruins to the Burrito faithful. Others asked that the famous "Guac" sign - a green neon signal that lures the hungry like a siren song - be placed on e-Bay for bidding.
Lauren Stucki, who has worked at Burrito Brothers for three years, says the devotion to these tacos gets downright freaky.
"Somebody referred to it last night as making a trip to Mecca," she says, rolling her eyes.
Akerson basically fell into the burrito business. A Minnesotan literature major more fond of Charles Dickens than Taco Bell, Akerson came to Gainesville with hopes of going to law school. But before long, he started working for what was then Key West Taco Company. Akerson eventually bought all but a small portion of the company, which is still part-owned by Eric Daney, an Illinois businessman.
Akerson calls himself a lucky man, but that luck nearly ran out 1 years ago. Frank Darabi, managing partner of University Corners, shelled out $1.9 million for the stretch of property where Burrito Brothers sits. When Darabi looked over the leases of all the tenants, he discovered a well-kept secret: Akerson had no lease and had been renting month-to-month for years. With no legal claim to the property, Akerson could've been booted out in short order, making way for the eight-story commercial and residential complex Darabi plans to build.
"Randy, when I first met him, he just had a panic attack," Darabi recalls.
But Darabi didn't want to pick a public fight with a Gainesville institution like Burrito Brothers. So he offered to put Akerson up in a new location for the next two or three years. It's more than twice the size of Akerson's current location, and Darabi expects it will cost him about $180,000 to uphold his end of the bargain. Burrito Brothers will be welcomed back to a renovated location on its old property once University Corners is completed, Darabi says.
Other tenants in the area have settled for similar deals, though Darabi has been unable to convince the owners of Maui Teriyaki to move out. Even so, Darabi says some demolition on the three-block stretch of property will begin as early as Tuesday.
Though everyone on the staff appears ready for the move, Janet Akerson says it's going to be sentimental.
"I'm sure when they tear it down, I'll be crying," she says, looking over at her husband. "But he won't."
Walking through the new shop recently, Akerson got giddy about his new steam table and preparation area. He plans to add chicken to a menu that hasn't really expanded since 1976. He plans to add quesadillas. He may even have a new slogan one of these days.
"Kicking and screaming," he says, "we're going to be dragged into the 21st century."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack. Stripling@gvillesun.com

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