Madison barbecue legend “Smoky Jon” Olson, whose name is synonymous with ribs and BBQ sauce, died Friday at age 67.
Olson’s longtime friend and attorney, Chuck Chvala, said Smoky Jon’s # 1 BBQ, near the airport on Madison’s North Side, will live on.
“The family is committed to keeping the business going,” said Chvala, a former state Senate Democratic majority leader. “There are a couple of family members very involved in making sure that happens. They will have an announcement about that. Remember, this just happened and there’s a funeral coming up and they’re focused on that.”
Olson died of complications related to kidney disease and diabetes, according to his obituary.
Chvala, who was asked by the family to be his spokesperson, said Olson had been in the hospital but had gone back home and his death “was rather sudden at the end.”
The two men grew up on Madison’s East Side, and Chvala said they played hockey together since they were in third or fourth grade and then in high school at La Follette.
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They were so dedicated to hockey that Chvala remembers skating as boys at Lake Edge Park and freezing his ears so badly, they ballooned up like melons. “So yeah, there’s a lot of history there,” he said.
At La Follette, Olson also played football and baseball and sang in the a cappella concert choir, according to his obit.
Smoky Jon’s website details the numerous national awards Olson won in the restaurant’s 46 years, and he had a case full of trophies, ribbons and certificates at Smoky Jon’s to prove it.
His obituary said he won more than 100 state and national awards for meats, sauces and spice rubs.
It was not uncommon for Olson to email newspaper reporters about his latest awards in all capital letters.
“Jon was bigger than life in so many ways,” Chvala said. “I mean, he was a businessman and had this whole amazing business, this rib business, this Smoky Jon’s. He developed his own sauce.”
Chvala said the family wanted him to emphasize Olson’s appreciation for his customers over the years. “He just got this little little place up there on Packers Avenue, and then he does the catering thing, and he’s just had a great run and the customers have been great,” he said.
In 2005, Olson told a freelance reporter working for the Wisconsin State Journal that delicious barbecue can come out of Madison just as easily as it comes out of places such as Memphis, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; and Texas.
“Great barbecue is where you find it, not where it’s from,” he said.
Smoky Jon’s has a log cabin feel, and its specialty is built into its phone number: 608-249-RIBS.
Chvala said that Smoky Jon’s, 2310 Packers Ave., is the kind of place that only people who have lived in Madison a long time know about. “It’s kind of an unknown little gem that people don’t know is there,” he said. “His are the best ribs. They might be the best ribs in the country.”
Olson seasoned and rubbed the meat with his own mixture of spices and cooked it in rotisserie wood-burning fire boxes with high humidity.
Olson said most people don’t take the time to learn how to prepare good barbecue because it’s so time-intensive. “It takes work, just like anything else,” he said.
Chvala said Olson’s enthusiasm for life and for his business could not be beat. “It was unmatched by anybody that I’ve seen,” he said.
Olson loved hunting and would go on trips around the United States and into Canada to hunt deer, Chvala said, adding that Olson had the largest collection of white-tailed deer head mounts he’d ever seen.
“Generous, boldly opinionated and enterprising, Jon did many things, from building a unique dream house to bartering ribs for Christmas trees to landing super car deals for friends and family,” his obit said.
While Olson wasn’t married, Chvala said, “the love of his life” for 42 years was Connie Stenjem. Olson had no children.
There will be a service from noon to 1 pm Thursday with visitation starting at 10 am at Gunderson East Funeral & Cremation Care, 5203 Monona Drive.
Photos: January 2022 in photos
“(Smoky Jon’s) is kind of an unknown little gem that people don’t know is there.”