ST. PETERSBURG — Two things about Fred Fleming: He knew barbecue, and no matter how many sucker punches life landed, he always bounced back.
He lost a successful home building company in the 1980s when interest rates hit 18 percent and the economy collapsed.
He developed a sauce that won accolades at rib festivals all over the country, then lost bottling rights.
He started Fred Fleming's Famous BBQ on Fourth Street N, which had customers snaking out the door at midweek — until investors took over, forced him out and went belly-up.
Family members pooled their money to underwrite a big new restaurant in Seminole that he and his wife, Cassie, called Champions' BBQ. Then the current recession wiped them out.
"It was incredibly hard on the family, with the tension that created. There was finger-pointing and fighting," his son, Scott, said Monday. "He and Cassie went up to Homosassa and somehow scrimped and saved and borrowed and got another Champions going, worked long hours and got back on their feet. The family mended its ways and celebrated his strength."
In 2010, the Flemings returned to St. Petersburg, renovating a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop on Fourth Street, just across the street from the old Fred Fleming's.
The new place held a handful of tables, but those same succulent ribs, tangy sauces and fluffy coconut cakes attracted a steady takeout crowd — many from the St. Petersburg neighborhoods where his family began to grow decades ago.
"His whole life was nothing but being kicked around," said his daughter Tammy Rehnke. "I would have been shriveled up in a corner in a fetal position. I don't know how he kept going. He was the most positive person I ever met."
A native of Illinois, Mr. Fleming moved to Pass-a-Grille with his parents in the 1950s, graduated from the Citadel and served briefly in the Air Force. After a stint as a paper products salesman, he began building high-end custom homes, mainly in the Naples area. He went bankrupt and divorced his first wife in the 1980s — then discovered that culinary talents that delighted family and friends could also make a buck.
Mr. Fleming kept barbecue meat from drying out by positioning pans of evaporating water in the smoker. He tweaked sauces. He hit the rib fest circuit and won more than 100 first-place awards. For five years, he was on the road so often, his children called him "carny."
At times, customers formed three lines "40 deep for $20 a plate," said Scott Fleming. At the end of a long weekend, Mr. Fleming might show up at a local bank, "wearing a filthy raincoat, boots, all smoky and covered in sauce with a satchel with $15,000 in cash to make a deposit."
His sauces were called Fat Fred's, as was a restaurant he and a companion started in Crystal River. It was a down-home name that stemmed from his 5-foot-11, 290-pound build. In 1997, he lost commercial bottling rights to Fat Fred's when he and his partner parted ways.
A few years later, Brian Storman — owner of Storman's Palace nightclub on Ulmerton Road — tasted Mr. Fleming's ribs and suggested a joint venture, which became Fred Fleming's Famous BBQ on Fourth Street N. It was a short-lived business partnership, but a friendship grew stronger over the years.
Within a year, Mr. Fleming sold majority control to the founders of the Hops Restaurant Bar and Brewery chain, who financed a half-dozen Fred Fleming's restaurants around Tampa Bay.
They closed in 2009, two years after Mr. Fleming left the company.
At today's restaurant, Mr. Fleming oversaw food preparation and chatted with customers, said his stepson, Joseph Cassady, who oversees day-to-day operations.
"He had his hands on everything on the menu. He was a perfectionist," Cassady said. "He has been grooming me ultimately to fill his shoes. But those are big shoes."
Cooking for others was Mr. Fleming's "love language," said Tammy Rehnke. "If something called for a stick of butter, he used two."
Mr. Fleming had quadruple bypass surgery about 15 years ago. On Saturday he left the restaurant and went home for a nap. After he failed to return, his daughter Leslie found him dead in a recliner. He was 75.