The Happy Chef statue on the northern edge of Mankato is beloved by generations of Minnesotans, many of whom can remember pressing a button at its base and hearing it spout a corny joke: “When it’s raining cats and dogs, be careful you don’t fall in a poodle.”
But the goofy, grinning chef — 36 feet tall, counting its spoon — has been mute for more than a decade after its 1960s-era electronics failed.
Now the chef will speak again.
Adrian Swales, who runs the restaurant, said he’ll be bringing the chef into the 21st century with an electronics update shortly after Labor Day.
“I have been here since 2009, and I can’t tell you how many times I have answered the question, ‘When are you going to get him speaking again?’ ” Swales said Friday. “I figured, ‘What the heck, there is so much nostalgia that it would be foolish not to do something with the statue.’
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single day, people stop to take pictures of it,” Swales added. “Bringing people back to that good time in their lives is nothing but great.”
There will be some changes. The chef’s greetings will be motion-activated, rather than prompted by a button. And Swales will be able to change greetings, or customize them, by swapping out a flash drive.
The Happy Chef statue turned 50 this year, and it’s the only one remaining of about 25 that used to dot the Midwest.
The Frederick brothers — Tom Sr., Sal and Bob — who opened the restaurant in 1963, once had as many as 80 other Happy Chef restaurants (not all featured a statue), but the Mankato eatery is the only one left.
The statue “is a local icon,” said Katherine Hughes, a member of the Mankato Heritage Preservation Commission. “Once you’ve seen him, it’s hard to forget. He’s happy and bowlegged.
“People have so many memories of it. Even people who do not live in Mankato would make it a point on their way to the Cities to stop at the Happy Chef so kids could press the button and the chef would talk to them.”
In fact, Hughes recently proposed that the commission officially designate the fiberglass statue as a local historic landmark, but the Frederick family and Swales declined.
“We were incredibly honored to be asked,” Swales said. “However, we wanted to be sure we maintained the ownership rights of the statue. We wanted to make sure we didn’t have to ask for permission or go to a committee to do anything with it.”
Swales said he’s committed to keeping the statue in place; in addition to restoring the chef’s speech, Swales recently had the statue repainted. It will be there as long as he runs the restaurant, he pledged.
“We are the first Happy Chef and the last, and I want to keep it here for as long as I possibly can,” he said. “I want to be able to give back to the community that has supported us over the years.”