When I last spoke to Art Blondin in January of this year, he was excited about having found a turn-key deal on a barbecue joint in the Williamson County town of Florence. He was glad to be back in the barbecue business and already talking about plans to offer live music. Art Blondin was found dead in the restaurant Saturday, Aug. 30. He was 60 years old.
An employee arriving for work on Saturday found the body. According to the Florence Police Department, an autopsy was scheduled for early this week to determine cause of death. Family friend Danny Britt told me he expects the body will be cremated and a celebration of Blondin's life will be held at a later date.
Many Austinites will remember Art as the longtime proprietor of Artz Rib House (2330 S. Lamar), a ramshackle barbecue temple and live music venue known for St. Louis style pork ribs and great burgers. The Southern Foodways Alliance even recorded an oral history of the restaurant, so there's a description of Art's path from musician to pit man in his own words.
As a musician himself, Art often played with Jon Emery's band and Artz also provided a showcase and sustenance to singer-songwriters and plenty of bluegrass pickers. Many of the musicians who played Artz demonstrated their love for Blondin in January of 2009 when his beloved wife Zenobia Sutton was seriously ill and the couple hit a financial rough patch. "Z" was in intensive care, the restaurant was behind on taxes, and also seriously in need of repairs.
Art's friends Danny and Rene Britt organized some benefits. Employees cooked and served food (many of them donating tips) and bands came to play. After hours, many of the musicians whose day jobs were as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers came back to the restaurant and donated their other set of skills making much-needed repairs. Though "Z" recovered and the benefits helped keep the restaurant open, Art would later file for bankruptcy in 2010 and close for good in 2012.
Art would touch base periodically over the past couple of years, first to say he was working at a place called Jax north of campus and then at the reborn Hill's Cafe, where he manned the pits awhile in anticipation of working with the Winstanley brothers on a rib joint being built on the site of the original Artz. Art ultimately decided the deal with the Winstanley's was not for him and found the restaurant available in Florence on Craigslist. That place became Art's Ribs & BBQ. He was hoping to turn tiny Florence into the next Central Texas barbecue destination.
Art Blondin is survived by his wife, Zenobia Sutton, and a huge legion of friends who appreciated his worthwhile contributions to Austin's music and barbecue scenes. "There was no one in this town with a bigger heart or who helped our local musicians by giving them a place to play and paying them. He’s still the king of BBQ to many of us," his friend Pam Golightly said today. We'll keep you posted about any memorial.
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