Happy Chef

Heritage Preservation Commission member Kathrine Hughes was hoping to preserve the Happy Chef statue off Highway 169. The property owner politely declined the preservation designation from the city but does plan on preserving the statue. File photo

MANKATO — The Happy Chef has spoken.

Asked to join Mankato's list of Heritage Preservation Landmarks, the 36-foot spoon-wielding cook that's loomed over the city's northern entrance for 50 years answered with a unambivalent "Thanks, but no thanks."

Well, at least the statue's ownership politely declined.

"I'm sorry about that," said Katherine Hughes, the Mankato Heritage Preservation Commission member who suggested the Chef join Mankato's historic buildings and parks on the list. "But this is, after all, the owner's choice. Maybe the day will come they'd want to do it."

For now, Tom Frederick Jr., the son of one of the brothers who founded the restaurant that grew to a chain of Happy Chefs stretching across the Northern plains, has declined the Heritage Preservation Commission's request.

"He stated that they are stewards of the history of the statute and have a fondness for the statue as well, and that they are interested in preserving the statute, just not in having the designation," according to the minutes of the Commission's August meeting.

Hughes said she's happy the Frederick family is committed to preserving the smiling, toque-wearing fiberglass behemoth. There's even talk of replacing his electronic voice, which amused children for decades when they'd push the button on his pedestal on the way into the restaurant.

"I'm pleased it will be functioning again because the kids love that, they love to talk to the statue," she said.

Hughes proposed making the Chef the 18th landmark on the city's list when he turned 50 this year — generally the age threshold for being designated. It's not just his iconic nature in the region, a (once) talking giant cook that lives in the memories of countless people who stopped at the restaurant on Highway 169 or one of his many clones that sprung up as the chain grew.

The chain topped out at about 80 with nearly a third accompanied by the statutes. Founded by Mankato's Frederick brothers — Sal, Tom and Bob — who became legendary in the Minnesota restaurant industry. They believed they were the first restaurant to offer coffee in a thermos pot so java drinkers wouldn't have to wait for the waitress to refill their cups, they offered breakfast day and night, and the restaurants were popular stops for locals and highway travelers alike.

"And it started here," Commission Chair Jessica Potter said in June. "That's why it's historically significant, because it started here. And this is the last Happy Chef standing outside a Happy Chef restaurant."

The Mankato business, founded in 1963, is also the last Happy Chef restaurant still operating.

Operator Adrian Swales is keen to get the statute wired for sound and to resurrect some of the corny jokes he told kids who pushed the button. Most of those lines were focused on his height, but five decades later he could probably add some about his age: "I'm so old my Social Security number is 1; I'm so old that when God said, 'Let there be light,' I flipped the switch; I'm so old that they wanted me to be a Heritage Preservation Landmark."

While it doesn't look like that status will be officially designated to the Chef, Hughes already considers it to be unofficially true: "It is a landmark as far as I'm concerned."

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