Updated Feb. 28, 2021
When the owners of The Mai-Kai announced in December 2020 that the historic restaurant and the several acres of land the mid-century marvel has occupied since 1956 were possibly for sale, the first reaction from most longtime customers was shock and fear.
Shock that the seemingly indestructible Tiki temple had been taken down, not by the coronavirus pandemic or hurricane-force winds, but by a vicious rainstorm that caused irrecoverable damage to the kitchen that was beyond the capacity of the family-run operation to fix. And fear that the announcement that the owners were seeking partners (or buyers) meant the end of the world’s most well-preserved example of a Polynesian supper club on the grandest of scales.
They flooded social media channels to commiserate, but those emotions did not lead to resignation or despair. Rather, it lit a fire under the legions of followers that had come to love and cherish The Mai-Kai over its many decades of operation.
UPDATE: ‘Save The Mai-Kai’ petition tops 10,000 signatures
Primed by the don’t-just-sit-there ethos of the pandemic, these passionate boosters quickly turned their frustration into action. The most shining example of this united front of support can be found in a petition posted on Change.org on Jan. 23. After just two days, it topped 2,600 signatures. Three weeks later, the “Save The Historic Mai-Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Show” petition was closing in on 10,000 signees. It passed that mark on Feb. 22 and has a new goal of 15,000.
The petition is aimed at Mayor Jane Bolin of Oakland Park, the Fort Lauderdale suburb that has always been an ally of its most famous business. Also named is Broward County Commissioner Lamar Fisher, whose district includes the restaurant that faces Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) just a few miles from the area’s famous beach.
It urges supporters to sign the online petition to let the officials “know that you don’t want to lose this iconic fixture that makes Oakland Park a global tourist destination and revenue source for so many.” On top of the signatures, more than 270 people took the time to post comments, lamenting the potential loss of a beloved part of their lives.
“The Mai Kai is an icon of authentic Americana in Fort Lauderdale, a place that visitors from across the U.S. and from abroad expect to find in this city – because there is nothing like it anywhere else,” wrote author Sven Kirsten, who featured the restaurant in The Book of Tiki, his influential treatise on Tiki culture.
Author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, who wrote the definitive Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, added:
“It is important to the finances of the city. Thousands of people will never return to the city if it closes.”
For others, it was very personal. Holly Kriss wrote: “This is an important cultural landmark which must be saved at any cost! One of the reasons we moved permanently to FL was because of the MaiKai!!” Added Kathryn Pease: “My family and friends go to the Fort Lauderdale area specifically to go to the Mai-Kai.”
Julie Perkins summed up the feelings of many perfectly: “The Mai Kai is historically important architecturally and culturally. It is no hyperbole to say that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Other tiki restaurants exist, but very few have been in operation for over 50 years, and none with the combination of architecture, live show and gardens that attract visitors from around the world as the Mai Kai does. My family and I visit Ft. Lauderdale from Texas once or twice a year solely because of the Mai Kai.”
Fans gather on Facebook to offer support, share experiences
In addition to the petition, a new “Save the Mai-Kai” group exploded on Facebook, gathering more than 730 like-minded members in just two days and 1,400 four days after forming on Jan. 21. It’s now nearing 2,000 members and has become the site of shared emotions, from angst to despair to hope. Many take the opportunity to share family photos of their trips to The Mai-Kai, some from decades ago.
The description says the purpose of the group “is for tiki fans worldwide to band together and see what we can do to save this incredible treasure.” The group’s only rules are “Be civil” and “Be respectful.”
By all accounts, members are not just respectful but also reverential and reflective. One member shared a photo of his parents enjoying cocktails at The Mai-Kai in 1962, noting that “57 years later I finally went in 2019. Not sure why I waited so long to go.”
Two existing Facebook groups dedicated to The Mai Kai have also seen passionate discussion of the closing and prospective partnership/sale. Friends of The Mai-Kai, a group created in 2016 and sanctioned by The Mai-Kai, has just passed 2,000 members. A newer group, We Love the Mai Kai, has 200+ members. Click on the links to join.
We can thank many dedicated Tiki enthusiasts for spearheading this outpouring of assistance, but two in particular stand out. Don Hampton posted the petition and serves as an administrator of the Facebook group, which was created by Dawne Richards. Hampton said the goals of both “are to keep the conversation going, become a rallying place to share our stories and pictures.”
Ultimately, he said, he hopes to “create awareness, get the attention of the local chamber of commerce, mayor and decision-makers in power to see that this Floridian icon needs to be preserved.”
Longtime devotees of mid-century Polynesian style and its iconic properties are particularly sensitive to The Mai-Kai’s plight. They’ve seen too many of their beloved Tiki restaurants become victims of a wrecking ball over the years. They fear it may befall the same fate as the historic Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio (1961-2000), which was actually inspired by The Mai-Kai.
“It’s not just the building it’s the sum-total combination of ingredients that is the essence of the Mai-Kai experience,” Hampton said via e-mail. “This is a gathering place where we, as a community come together. It is our shared hallowed ground and I am confident that a solution can be found to preserve the Mai-Kai.”
The Mai-Kai continues events, take-out cocktails, merch sales during closure
For the record, The Mai-Kai has not appealed for aid nor helped organize these endeavors in any way. They are 100 percent authentic, viral, grassroots efforts by the restaurant’s most loyal fans.
“We are doing whatever we can to preserve our family’s legacy and this beloved South Florida institution,” according to the most recent public statement from the Thornton family – posted on social media Jan. 26 and added to MaiKai.com.
“The family is and always will be dedicated to the Mai-Kai and its legacy,” says the statement, which takes issue with news reports they deemed “unkind, unfair and misleading.” The news articles were spurred by the family – which includes most of the kin of late co-founder Bob Thornton – hiring a business broker to assist in finding a partner or, in the worst case scenario, a buyer for the restaurant.
However, the statement made it clear that the broker was engaged “to work with our family to ensure the long term success of the Mai-Kai and its legacy,” dismissing the notion that “everything is on the table.”
The family admits that the coronavirus pandemic “had a devastating effect on the Mai-Kai” even prior to the “catastrophic damage” that closed the restaurant after a water pipe burst in the kitchen ceiling. “These combined events caused our family to go out into the market and seek a partner, while ensuring that the legacy of the Mai-Kai can live on,” the statement says.
It concludes emphatically: “Rest assured, NO ONE cares more about the Mai-Kai than the Thornton family. Three generations have put our hearts and souls into the Mai-Kai and we are doing whatever we can to preserve our family’s legacy and this beloved South Florida institution. All we ask is that you be patient and allow us to work through this extremely difficult time. Again, please know that it is our hope and our desire to see the Mai-Kai reopen with all its original splendor. We will endeavor to keep you apprised and we thank you for your support.”
Meanwhile, as announced Jan. 26 on its social channels, The Mai-Kai will continue to offer its popular tropical drinks to go, sell merchandise at MaiKaiTradingpost.com and make plans for future events in the restaurant parking lot. Many cocktails by the quart and gallon were sold before Super Bowl weekend, with one loyal fan going so far as to transport his booty back to New York by plane (see photo above).
Takeout cocktails will be offered on upcoming dates to be announced. Follow The Mai-Kai’s social media pages or sign up for the e-mail list to get news on future offerings. The next parking lot event on the calendar is a car show on Feb. 28 featuring classic vehicles, Mai-Kai cocktails, and a food truck. Admission is free.
Before the event, tropical drinks will be available for pick-up on Feb. 26-27. Grab a gallon and/or quart of three signature cocktails: Barrel O’ Rum, Mai Tai and Jet Pilot. Call Pia Dahlquist, The Mai-Kai’s director of public relations, at 954-646-8975 by 1 p.m on Feb. 25 to place your order.
Dahlquist also revealed that more events are on the horizon, including a Tiki marketplace.
In addition to the merchandise posted in the online Trading Post, The Mai-Kai has also continued to offer rare items from the vaults for auction on its eBay page. Click on both sites periodically since inventory is updated often.
While it’s unclear how much influence the petition drive and outpouring of fan encouragement will have on the future of The Mai-Kai, the broker handling negotiations on potential partners and/or buyers is well aware of the restaurant’s longtime, loyal base. The CEO of Transworld Business Advisors, Andrew Cagnetta, told Miami New Times that his daughters were heartbroken when he told them about his newest client.
Cagnetta told New Times for a Jan. 22 article that he had already seen interest. “We have people from tiki chat boards and other inquiries,” he said. “This could be an ideal property for an investor that sees the potential of the investment property beyond that.”
He said his firm specializes in finding buyers for properties that have value beyond the simple square footage, such as The Mai-Kai. “Our job is to find the people that are also interested in the intellectual property,” he said, referring to the restaurant’s brand and its unique food, drink and entertainment options.
“It’s all about finding the right person that sees the bigger picture,” Cagnetta said. “We’re talking to a lot of groups that have interest in the project.”
The Mai-Kai sits on 2.69 acres of land, more than half of it fronting busy Federal Highway. When it was built 65 years ago, the surrounding area was mostly undeveloped land. Bob Thornton and his brother Jack were reportedly chastised for opening their dream Polynesian palace so far away from what was then sleepy Fort Lauderdale.
Their original A-frame design cost $300,000, reported to be the most expensive restaurant built in 1956. The site was vastly expanded in the early 1970s, when the current Molokai bar and additional dining rooms were added. In its first year, it earned more than $1 million, becoming one of the most successful restaurants of the era. It was also known for selling more rum than any location in the United States.
The restaurant encompasses 26,000 square feet and includes 450 seats in the dining rooms, more than 100 in the Molokai bar, an ornate gift shop, outdoor seating, and vast outdoor gardens featuring waterfalls and massive Tiki carvings. Up to 150 employees can work at The Mai-Kai at any one time, from a grounds crew to the performers in the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
The Mai-Kai was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. “The building, landscaped garden, interior décor, and the operational elements make the Mai-Kai an exemplary of an exotic themed restaurant and tourist destination,” according to the description in the register.
It’s now boxed in by development, including furniture stores to the north and south, but it remains an exotic tropical oasis in the urban sprawl of South Florida.
Let’s hope a potential investor or owner sees the value in keeping as much of it intact as possible. The Mai-Kai’s many fans and backers are certainly doing all they can do to let the world know why they should.
The Mai-Kai official sites and social media
* MaiKai.com | MaiKaiTradingPost.com
* Twitter | Facebook: Official page | Friends of The Mai-Kai group
* Instagram: Restaurant | The Molokai bar | Trading Post
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The Atomic Grog’s coverage of The Mai-Kai
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