From the first Happy Chef eatery in Mankato, there followed dozens more of the family-style restaurants, sprinkled around Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest as far south as Kansas.
That first locale soldiers on as the last one still in operation, its signature, smiling Happy Chef statue standing tall at 36 feet.
Now Happy Chef No. 1 is up for sale, and when the deal is done, it will mark the end of the more than half-century business begun by three brothers and kept in the family the entire time.
Co-founder Tom Frederick Sr., 81, said he’s selling in anticipation of road construction next summer in front of the restaurant on Hwy. 169 keeping too many customers away.
Frederick wants to be clear that diners and his help shouldn’t be concerned quite yet that they’ll show up one day and find the restaurant closed for good.
“I think I’ll be here for quite a while yet,” he said Thursday, emphasizing that his asking price of $1.2 million for the recently renovated property is firmly set and his health is perfectly fine.
The Frederick brothers, Sal, Bob and Tom, opened the first Happy Chef in 1963. From there, the restaurants blossomed around the region to more than 60. Twin Cities locations included Roseville and Plymouth.
At their zenith, the Happy Chefs employed nearly 3,000 people, not counting the statues out front.
But then came restaurants with dozens of televisions and alcohol, and competition from the likes of Denny’s and Perkins grew more fierce. Tom Frederick, who bought out his brothers in the 1980s, leased out his restaurants or sold them off.
As for the future of the ever-cheerful, spoon-hoisting Happy Chef out front in Mankato, Frederick said, “I haven’t even thought about” what its fate might be.
“A lot of people are still taking pictures of it,” he said. “My waitresses tell me there are people out there every day taking pictures. It’s an icon.”
The statues have met various post-Happy Chef fates. One was moved to Ryan, Iowa, where it was made over into a baseball umpire signaling an out with the hand that once held a spoon. Another, in McPherson, Kan., was morphed into a chimney sweep sporting a top hat.
A to Z Restaurant Equipment in Princeton, Minn., moved one onto its property and put the company initials on the chef’s hat.