MANKATO — Adrian Swales takes his position as "Keeper of the Statue" seriously.
As the new owner of the last remaining Happy Chef restaurant and its iconic Happy Chef statue out front, Swales knows he has a lot of history and tradition to protect. But he's also looking at ways to update the 55-year-old restaurant on Highway 169 north, even the statue.
"That is something on top of my to-do list, to get him cleaned up and painted and, hopefully, get him talking again. I think that's one of the most photographed things in Mankato. You'd be amazed at how many people stop to take a picture," Swales said. "For most people, they have fond childhood memories of him. And some people are just driving by and think it's funny to see a big chef statue and stop to take a picture."
The Chef statue used to talk to kids who pushed a button on the base, but the sound went quiet in the early '90s. Fixing it would have meant tearing up a bunch of concrete and parking lot to get to wiring. But Swales thinks modern technology will make it easier for him get the chef talking again.
The Mankato Happy Chef was built in 1963 by Tom Frederick Sr. and he and his brothers Sal and Bob went on to open 80 more of the Midwest restaurants with the giant Happy Chef statues out front. All the other stores have closed over the years and Swales said he's heard that only a couple of other statues may still exist.
Swales, who purchased the restaurant from Frederick Sr. last summer, is no stranger to it or the Frederick family.
He was hired by Tom Frederick Jr. and Jay Reasner in 2003 at Ruttles in St. Peter.
"I hired him as a cook at Ruttles," said Reasner, who now operates Pub 500 in Mankato along with Frederick Jr.
"He's a great guy. He's very smart and capable and good at what he does," Reasner said. "He quickly moved from cook to manager at Ruttles."
When Ruttles closed in 2009, Swales became manager of Happy Chef.
"That made (buying the restaurant) easier. I have the experience, and the core staff I have now is the same that was here when I came in 2009. I've got a great staff and I already knew all the regulars."
Swales said he hasn't made any tweaks yet and wants to go slow and not make too drastic of changes at a place with a 55-year track record. "But there are ways I want to bring it into the 21st century, modernize it but keep it nostalgic."
That already includes more use of social media, and he plans other changes, including the decor.
While his transition into ownership has been smooth, he has an unexpected roadblock — literally — coming up this summer. Mankato and North Mankato are going to raise part of Highway 169, right in front of Happy Chef, to bring it into compliance with federal requirements for the cities' flood-control system.
The disruption, which could last from about August to October, is a slap just two years after the highway saw a major reconstruction that made it difficult for guests to come to Happy Chef.
"The last closure, we were down about 40 percent in business." He said employee hours had to be cut during the last construction.
"But they were really understanding. I didn't have too many people leave, but I understood people had to do what was best for them."
Swales said there will be access to Happy Chef throughout this summer's construction.
Despite the coming headache, Swales said taking over the business has gone great.
"Tom Sr. and Tom Jr. have been very helpful in the transition. Tom Sr. is so amazing, he's given so much to the community and employees. If I can do a fraction of what he did, I'd be thrilled."