Happy Chef gets his voice back

The Mankato Happy Chef Restaurant is the last remaining from a chain that once spread across the Midwest. The Mankato location, opened in 1968, was the first location. Photo by Pat Christman.

MANKATO, Minn. — Meta Millhone walked up to the Happy Chef statute Tuesday looking for the button on the base she used to press as a kid to make him talk.

"Well, hello there neighbor," the chef's voice boomed, making Millhone jump, unaware the refurbished statue and its regained voice now works on a motion detector.

"That's so cool," Millhone, of St. Peter, said.

"We used to come here in the '70s and push the button. We lived in the country so this was our big treat."

The 50-year-old statue, the last chef statue in the country, has been silent for 20 years after the old speaker system broke. Now new owner Adrian Swales has the chef talking again and got him a new paint job from Reichel Painting.

"People are super excited. The fact an old icon is speaking again — a lot of memories come back," Swales said.

Perry Conley, a frequent customer at Happy Chef, said he remembers 40 years ago when his kids would push the button to listen to one of the 10 sayings. He said the return of its voice is bringing a lot of attention to the restaurant.

"It seems like it impresses the old people who remember it more than the kids."

Swales said that when Electrical and Communications Specialists of Mankato began restoring the sound they couldn't get to one of the original speakers located under the chef's nose without cutting into the statue, but two other speakers, at the base of the spoon and below the chef's foot were replaced. And a speaker was added in the front of the building and on the side to project the voice into the parking lots. "Surround sound," Swales said.

Swales made sure several of the original sayings were used: "Hey, I can see your house from here. Dine at the sign of the Happy Chef. We're all happier here."

The other 50 plus sayings that come from the chef were created by staff and customers. "I put something on Facebook about things people would want him to say. Some weren't appropriate but a lot of good ones came in."

Several of the sayings play on the chef's five decades of standing in front of the Highway 169 restaurant. "I'm so old my Social Security Number is 1," or "Hey, can you help me out, I've been holding up this spoon since 1968."

Other messages refer to the Vikings and to Minnesota State University's 150th anniversary.

The messages recorded are the voice of Ben Findley, owner of Insty Prints and a friend of Swales.

Swales said the new technology will allow him to easily have a series of new sayings for the chef and allow him to tailor them to holidays or personal greetings from customers on their birthday or anniversary.

Follow Tim Krohn on Twitter @TimKrohn

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