MANKATO – After more than two decades of silence, the Happy Chef has a lot to say.
He's got some thoughts on dining.
"That's not a flying saucer!" the 36-foot-tall fiberglass foodie boomed this week from his perch next to U.S. Hwy. 169. "That's just one of our pancakes!"
He's got opinions on sports.
"I'm 50 years old, and the Vikings still have yet to win a Super Bowl!" he observed cheerfully.
And he's got a never-ending supply of jokes: "I'm old enough to remember when emojis were called hieroglyphics!"
Yes, the chef is talking again, just as he did to the delight of generations of Minnesotans who made the pilgrimage to this southern Minnesota city to press a button and hear him give greetings mixed with corny jokes.
There's no longer a button — the chef's voice now is activated by motion sensors. But Adrian Swales, who owns the restaurant, hopes the chef will be as much of a draw as he was when he first spoke in 1968.
"I'm very, very happy, very pleased," Swales said. "People are ecstatic. It brings back so many childhood memories, and parents now can share that memory with their kids."
The chef stopped talking more than 20 years ago, when his 1960s-era electronics went haywire. Now he's fully digital, with 55 remarks stored on a flash drive — and more to come, promised Swales, who plans to put together seasonal playlists and perhaps even custom greetings for birthday parties and other celebrations.
The chef's voice is provided by Ben Findley, who owns a local Insty-Prints franchise and is also a well-known comedian and emcee in the Mankato area. Findley said he's "thrilled" to give voice to the chef, recently taking a couple of hours to read the lines into a microphone.
The Frederick brothers — Tom Sr., Sal and Bob — who opened the restaurant in 1963, once had as many as 80 Happy Chef restaurants (not all featured a statue), but the Mankato eatery is the only one left. And its statue is the only one still serving its original function, although a few others still can be spotted throughout the Midwest, repurposed in new roles.
Swales asked Happy Chef fans on Facebook to suggest lines for the statue, and their suggestions included several of the original statue's jokes, which are now part of its repertoire. And he also may look to the community to give a name to the newly refurbished chef.
Suzanne and Jeff Lappen of Brooklyn Park made the Happy Chef their first stop this week on a vacation trip to Oregon. As they approached the statue, it suddenly roared out a greeting. At first startled, Suzanne Lappen threw back her head, laughing and clapping her hands.
"Great! This is awesome!" she exclaimed.
Larry Anderson of Mankato said the statue brought back happy memories of his youth, when he cooked at a Happy Chef in Shakopee.
"I love it," he said. "It looks nice all painted up."
Jack McGowan of Mankato has a lifetime of familiarity with the Happy Chef statue.
"We had eight kids, so we saw it a lot," he said. As the statue roared a greeting behind him, McGowan broke into a wide grin, shouting to be heard over the chef's deep voice.
"That's wonderful," he said. "That's what makes life."