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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Original Happy Chef restaurant had roots on old lower campus

Frederick joins Hall of Fame

The original Happy Chef, Sal Frederick of Mankato, ran the Newman Center Cafe on the old lower campus before creating his seven-state restaurant chain. Now he's a hospitality hall-of-famer.

2006-04-09
By Tim Krohn, The Free Press [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 11/1/2005]

Photo by John Cross
Sal Frederick
Sal Frederick, the original 'Happy Chef,' stands next to the Happy Chef statue that has become a Midwest icon. Frederick is being honored for his lifetime of achievement as one of the inaugural inductees to the Minnesota Hospitality Hall of Fame.

MANKATO — Just about anyone who's driven Highway 169 north of Mankato in the past 40 years knows the towering Happy Chef statue.

This month, the real Happy Chef will be inducted into the state Hospitality Hall of Fame.The congenial Sal Frederick was the Happy Chef long before his restaurants ever bore the name.

"I was always the Happy Chef," Frederick said. "If you go up to Calvary cemetery, you'll see it engraved on my headstone, next to my wife, it says Happy Chef on top and my name underneath."

Frederick, and his late wife, Rose, got into the restaurant business when he was a 21-year-old just out of the Army in 1946.

They started at the "Hidden Inn" a 22-stool cafe across from the current Law Enforcement Center. They ran the Corner Cafe, the Brett's Grill, and the Newman Center cafe, on the then lower campus of Mankato State College.

In 1963 they opened the 169 Happy Chef, a family-style restaurant that would eventually lead to a company with 56 Happy Chef's in seven states.

The landmark 36-foot tall Happy Chef statue was an offshoot of a logo the Fredericks had used on the signs at their previous cafes. For years — until deteriorating wiring and trouble keeping it operational silenced it — kids could push a button on the base of the statue and hear a recorded message from the Chef.

"I don't know how many pictures were taken of kids and groups in front of that statue," Frederick said. There were about a dozen of the giant statues around the Midwest, but only a few remain.

Others have been transformed. One, in Kansas, now sports a black top hat and is holding a chimney sweeper instead of a spoon in its hand — the result of a former restaurant being sold to a chimney sweep business. There are also a few statues that were donated to cities and reside in parks — one retrofitted as a clown, another as a baseball player.

Frederick, 79, is retired and living in Mankato. The company is run by Sal's brother, Tom Sr. and his two children, Tom Jr. Frederick and Gwen Frederick.

There are only a few Happy Chefs left in the Midwest. The company is focusing on new venues, including the Pub 500 bar and restaurant in downtown Mankato.

"The family-type restaurants we were in has reached its peak. The younger generation is going off into the bar-restaurant format."

Frederick admits to a tinge of sadness seeing the business change, "But I had a 50-year good run."

When he served as president of the National Restaurant Association for nine years, he saw too many companies that didn't keep up with the times. "I saw these just great family companies that shot up, but the owners didn't keep up on the new trends and all of a sudden, they were gone. I decided never to do that. Let the young ones take over and run with it."

Frederick got into cooking because he was sick of being shot at. When he served in the Philippines, his sergeant picked him to be first scout. "He said, 'Frederick, you're too little to get shot, you're the scout.' "

The job, he said, was to head into enemy lines to see how strong the forces were. After two months of getting shot at, Frederick decided to violate the military rule of never volunteering and volunteered to do anything else.

"They sent me to the kitchen to be a cook, and I've been one ever since."

Frederick served on the board of directors of the Minnesota Restaurant Association for nearly two decades and was the president in the 1960s. It was then that he talked to the heads of the Hotel Association and the Resort Association and they agreed to create an umbrella organization called the Minnesota Hospitality Association.

The group, on Nov. 15, is inducting the first eight members into the new Minnesota Hospitality Hall of Fame. Joining Frederick are other Minnesota restaurateur legends Bill and Jack Kozlak, Nick Mancini, Pat Murray, Henry Kristal, Reuben Palm and David Fong.

Frederick said he has only one regret as he prepares for the honor, to be held at a gala in the Twin Cities — that his wife, who died in 2003, won't be there.

"She was at my side from the first day. We didn't know anything about running a restaurant, but we learned fast. She would of just loved to be at this event."

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