ALLEN — Less than 10 minutes into Fatburger’s reopening came the first stark reminder of why it closed, a day the restaurant’s owner, Alf Gonzalez, refers to only as “the event.”
When a handful of people walked through the double doors about 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, Gonzalez thought he was welcoming the first batch of customers on what he hoped would be a busy day. Instead, a woman handed one of his employees a pile of red nylon tote bags filled with foam stress balls and flyers for mental health services, including one that read “Tips for coping with community violence.”
Donning her black Fatburger baseball cap, Gonzalez’s 16-year-old daughter, Kiera Mojica, eagerly squeezed one of the stress balls in her left hand. It was only the second time Mojica had returned to Allen Premium Outlets since the mass shooting on May 6, but she was ready to work, she promised, and in her own way, she had prepared.
To help her process, Mojica retraced her steps Tuesday. Here is where she was standing when one of her coworkers came bursting through a back door, yelling “active shooter.” Here is where she escorted her customers to hide, even as her hands shook. Here, on the sidewalk just outside the restaurant, is where the rampage ended and the gunman bled out.
The gunfire lasted less than five minutes before the shooter was killed by an Allen police officer, who was nearby on an unrelated call. In that time, eight people lost their lives, at least seven others were wounded and hundreds more were traumatized — Gonzalez and Mojica included.
While Mojica was there during the shooting, Gonzalez had left earlier that afternoon to check on his other restaurant in Garland. What haunts him, he said, is the surveillance video of his customers, which he’s now watched more times than he can count, trying to make sense of the senseless.
In the footage, at least a dozen people are eating with their backs to the restaurant’s entrance, which is lined with windows. They can’t see it yet, but the camera can: Outside, people are running for their lives.
“If it wasn’t for that cop, the shooter was probably a minute and a half from coming inside with a long gun, catching my customers off guard, eating,” Gonzalez told The Dallas Morning News. “I try not to let myself think about what could have come next, but sometimes it’s hard, especially when it gets too quiet.”
The reopening meant time no longer allowed him to sift through the what-ifs, but for brief moments Wednesday, the quiet resurged.
Gonzalez tried everything, but the music wouldn’t start.
‘We’re going to be OK’
After checking in with a security guard at one of the mall’s back entrances, Gonzalez and Mojica parked outside Fatburger at 9:45 a.m. and were immediately greeted by a sense of the normalcy they craved: banter between coworkers, the sizzle of hot oil, the aroma of chopped onions. One employee was refilling the salt and pepper shakers, while another wiped down the tables with a damp white cloth.
“I can’t get the music to turn on,” a man called out from the kitchen. Gonzalez thought maybe something had happened to the cables over the past three weeks, but he couldn’t figure it out. He tried changing the channels on his TVs to a Top 100 music station, but it required a subscription.
“Fine, can anybody here sing?” the man asked. Mojica laughed as she fiddled with the drink cups.
“They’re the reason I really wanted to come back to work, even though there were days I felt like I couldn’t leave my house,” she said. “They just always make me feel better.”
After the shooting, Mojica said she struggled at school. Her first day back was May 10, but by the next morning, hearing her classmates talk and joke about what happened had already become unbearable. They didn’t understand. How could they?
Gonzalez said Mojica came home “distraught,” so she took a few more days off to decompress. It hurt, Gonzalez said, to see how much she was hurting.
Gonzalez, who grew up in the South Bronx, explained he was used to seeing and hearing about violence, but he wanted better for Mojica. Allen was supposed to be better.
“You never want your kids to go through something like this,” he said. “You build a life, you come to Allen, and just like that, it happens here too. Why should you ever have to hear gunshots? Why should you ever have to be anywhere near murders?”
“I hope it eventually becomes a blip in her mind, not something that weighs on her forever, but I know it has changed her.”
As Gonzalez said this, a family of six and another of three — the day’s first customers — walked in.
“Here we go, guys,” Gonzalez said.
The owner of Italia Express arrived not far behind them. Gonzalez said her family was one of the first he spoke to when trying to decide if he should open a restaurant at the outlets.
She pulled Gonzalez into a hug. “We’re going to be OK.”
“I know,” Gonzalez replied. “I know.”
‘The right thing to do’
Gonzalez believes that, but financially, there’s a long road ahead. What he lost in a little less than a month could take anywhere from six months to a year to recoup.
To make sure his employees had enough money to get by while they were closed, Gonzalez and his wife decided to pay their full-timers 32 hours and part-timers 16 hours. As the days went on and they got more comfortable, some employees started volunteering to come in and clean for more hours.
“We felt it was the right thing to do to get them through the next couple weeks,” he said, “but it hit our operational budget big time because we had no fresh sales coming in.”
So far, Gonzalez has had to turn off auto-pay for all of his bills, make payment arrangements with his vendors and ask his bank for help with deferments.
“It’s different for us, as a small business,” he said. “We aren’t like the bigger retailers here that have so much to fall back on. We need support.”
By noon Wednesday, five more families had come and gone, and another reminder of the day’s significance cropped up. The handlers of therapy dogs had come in to eat, their golden retrievers laying under tables on the cool concrete floors.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez wiped the sweat from his forehead as he worked to resolve another problem: Their drink carbonator wasn’t working. Until he could get someone to fix it, he told Mojica, Fatburger wasn’t serving soda.
Mojica nodded. Gonzalez couldn’t see it, but under the counter, she was squeezing the stress ball.
Here is where she watches as life goes on outside their windows and tries not to linger on the sidewalk too long.