MANKATO — You could almost say Happy Chef restaurants began on the front lines of World War II.
Marcel “Sal” Frederick, who died at age 86 Monday morning, was appointed as a scout in the Philippines, meaning he was sent ahead of the troops toward enemy lines to see how strong the forces were. His sergeant said, “Frederick, you’re too little to get shot,” Frederick of Mankato recalled in 2005.
So he thought volunteering as an Army cook would be a little less dangerous. “They sent me to the kitchen to be a cook, and I’ve been one ever since,” he told The Free Press.
That experience led to Sal and his wife, Rose, who died in 2003, going into the restaurant business in the late 1940s. The Fredericks started the Hidden Inn, a 22-stool cafe across from the current Law Enforcement Center. They also ran the Corner Cafe, the Brett’s Grill, and the Newman Center cafe, on the then lower campus of Mankato State College.
In 1963 Sal and his brothers, Bob Frederick and Tom Frederick Sr., opened the Highway 169 Happy Chef. The family-style restaurant would lead to a company with 56 Happy Chefs in seven states — their most successful venture to date.
But all of his success — which included eight years as a state legislator and induction into the Hospitality Hall of Fame — didn’t change the fact that Sal was a humble, generous and kind man, said Ivy Lewis, commander of the North Mankato American Legion.
“I didn’t have a clue when I first met him, or for several years afterward, that he was a former legislator and he was the founder of Happy Chef and all these great things he did with his life,” Lewis said. “He was still just a regular guy with a kind word for the people he met and the people he worked with.”
Over the years, the Happy Chef on Highway 169 has been best known for its landmark 36-foot tall statue of a very happy looking chef. The origins of the character came from a similar figure used on signs in their previous cafes.
For years kids could push the button on the base and hear a recorded message from the Chef. But wiring issues caused its inevitable silence. There were about a dozen of the giant statues around the Midwest, but only a few remain.
“I don’t know how many pictures were taken of kids and groups in front of that statue,” Sal said in a Free Press article from 2005, when he was inducted in the state Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Happy Chef is now run by Sal’s brother, Tom Frederick Sr. Tom Frederick Jr. owns Pub 500 in Mankato. Tom Jr. said he grew up working with Sal at Happy Chef when four of the six Frederick brothers were running the place.
Tom Jr. said he knew his uncle well as a kind and dedicated husband and family man. He said Sal and Rose were inseparable, and the couple had six daughters.
“(He was) very outgoing. He was personality-plus. Very active. Loved food. He was constantly trying things and eating things, and people would wonder how could you eat like that and stay as small as he was,” Tom Jr. said.
Tom Jr. said Sal’s and his brothers’ success with Happy Chef inspired him to go into the restaurant business as well.
“They were true entrepreneurs, and I guess that was kind of a genetic thing,” said Tom Jr., who out of 45 first cousins is only one of a couple who are still in the hospitality industry.
During his long career, Sal 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.
Glen Taylor first knew Sal as a businessman in Mankato. Both had come from meager beginnings and became self-made successful businessmen, he said.
“I think it was easy for the two of us to communicate because we both had been brought up without so much money and found ourselves in successful businesses, so we had good stories to share,” Taylor said, adding that he patronized Happy Chef often over the years. “He was an excellent business leader for this community.”
The two also worked together from the early 1980s to the early 1990s as Republican lawmakers when Taylor was a state senator and Sal served in the House of Representatives. Taylor ended his run in 1990, and Sal ended his eight-year run in 1992, beaten out by then Gustavus Adolphus College professor Don Ostrom by just 43 votes.
Taylor said education in the region was an issue both of them found to be important. Even after their terms, they stayed friends over the years and exchanged cards on birthdays.
“We worked very well (together),” Taylor said. “He was a very energetic person who really cared about the issues from our area, and he worked extremely hard.”
Lewis and Tom Jr. said Sal’s military service remained important to him all his life, and he remained active well after retirement at the North Mankato American Legion, of which he was a charter member. Fifteen years ago Lewis said Sal was the one who prompted her to become the first female veteran to get involved in the Legion.
“Sal was one of the members who didn’t hesitate to make me feel welcome,” Lewis said.
Sal volunteered to help with many Legion activities and arranged the Color Guard for funerals, parades and other events for many years until about two years ago. And even then he helped make phone calls to coordinate the events, she said.
Lewis said Sal also held World War II roundtable discussions at Dakota Meadows Middle School to talk about his service.
“He was one of those (generous) people for the whole community,” Lewis said. “He talked to people.”
Tom Jr. said Sal will be remembered for many accomplishments. But his legacy is pretty clear from his headstone, he said. Next to Rose’s grave sits Frederick’s headstone with Happy Chef engraved on it, Tom Jr. said, adding that the blessing now is that Sal is back with his beloved wife.
Sal had told The Free Press in 2005 that he already knew what his legacy would be after he died.
“I was always the Happy Chef,” he 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.”