After 11 months of uncertainty, loyal patrons of The Mai-Kai finally have a reason to raise a Barrel O’ Rum and celebrate. The founding owners have announced a joint ownership agreement that will not only infuse at least $5 million into the refurbishment of the 64-year-old Fort Lauderdale landmark, but also allow it to reopen in all its historic glory.
It’s been a rough year since a vicious October 2020 storm collapsed part of the roof and debilitated the kitchen and back-of-house operations. But the family that has operated the iconic Polynesian restaurant since 1956 has charted a new course with the help of a South Florida real estate investment and development company that specializes in restoring historic properties.
The bombshell was dropped Sept. 28 in an email and social media announcement titled “The Mai-Kai update you have all been waiting for.” The owners made public their joint venture with Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. No strangers to reviving beloved cultural institutions, the companies have been instrumental in revitalizing Ball and Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano in Little Havana’s famed Calle Ocho.
“We really understand what it’s like to be stewards of an older brand, where authenticity and heritage is very, very important,” Bill Fuller, a founder of both companies, told TV news station CBS 4 in Miami. “It’s outstanding to see the outpouring of folks and feedback from all over the world about how meaningful and how important The Mai-Kai has been in their life.”
EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers
The Mai-Kai began looking for partners in late 2020, when the scope of the damage and extent of the needed repairs became clear. After “considering numerous interested parties,” the announcement said, the search ended with the Miami group “when we met their team and recognized the passion they share for honoring and preserving the legacy of The Mai-Kai.”
That’s sure to please the restaurant’s passionate followers, who continue to show their support by ordering takeout cocktails and attending special outdoor events at 3599 N. Federal Highway in the suburb of Oakland Park. Until Sept. 28, they had been sharing their fears and frustrations online almost daily. A “Save The Mai-Kai” petition has nearly 12,000 signatures.
The Mai-Kai thanks ‘devoted fans and guests,’ promises restoration to ‘former splendor and beyond’
While the news on the ownership change was the top headline, the founding Thornton family made sure to show its appreciation to its customers first and foremost: “Most importantly, we want to thank you, our devoted fans and guests, for your continued support even while our doors have been closed,” the acknowledgement said. “You are a part of The Mai-Kai story, and we’re humbled by the outpouring of love and concern we’ve received. Rest assured, we are doing all we can to restore this beloved local institution — our family’s three-generation legacy — to its former splendor and beyond.”
The news resoundingly dashed all fears of a corporate takeover – or worse, the fate of a bulldozer. To the contrary, it appears that The Mai-Kai will return fully intact. “We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the announcement said. “We’re excited to bring back The Mai-Kai better than ever before — and for you to be a special part of it!”
We won’t receive a reopening date until the restoration and repairs are nearing completion, but a member of the Thornton ownership team said during The Hukilau a week before the announcement that we could be back inside the historic doors in eight to 12 months. Kulani Thornton Gelardi also foreshadowed the big news by saying that the guest areas of the restaurant will remain “85 to 90 percent the way it is now.” Gelardi, daughter of family matriarch Mireille Thornton, said they “want to make sure the building can exist for another 64 years.”
Speaking to the crowd at the “Save Paradise Party” outside the entrance to The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18, Gelardi promised that “we will reopen,” adding that guests won’t notice much changed “when you walk in that door.” She also spoke of her family, and how much it means to pass along the business to her children and grandchildren.
The news on the ownership change was supposed to take place during the annual Tiki weekender that draws devotees to Fort Lauderdale and The Mai-Kai from around the world. But the ink wasn’t dry on the million-dollar deal until the following week, so the official announcement was delayed.
More details were unveiled Sept. 29 in an official announcement on The Mai-Kai’s official website: “This strategic joint venture will resurrect the renowned Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show, the most unique dining and entertainment experience in South Florida since opening its doors over 6 decades ago.”
New owners ‘humbled’ and ‘honored’ to be able ‘preserve the legacy” of The Mai-Kai
The announcement introduces the new owners, led by Fuller – a Miami real estate and hospitality executive. “We are humbled to have been selected and honored to have the opportunity to restore this iconic landmark,” Fuller is quoted as saying. “We are committed to working with the family to preserve the legacy and expand upon its rich history for generations to come.”
Fuller co-founded Barlington Group in 2004 and Mad Room Hospitality in 2014. “We look forward to working with the Thornton family and Mad Room Hospitality, in doing the same with The Mai-Kai so that many more generations can enjoy this one-of-a-kind, beloved South Florida institution,” he said.
Similar to Ball and Chain, The Mai-kai is “truly is an iconic venue, not just for South Florida but for the United States and the world,” Fuller told Miami TV news outlet NBC 6. “It’s an opportunity to really preserve that legacy and that heritage.”
The Barlington and Mad Room Hospitality team, backed by investors, will assume majority ownership and management responsibilities. Their main focus will be on modernizing and streamlining the kitchen and back-of-house operations, not changing the style or look of the restaurant that remains chock full of vintage art and design flourishes, along with many South Seas artifacts collected by original owner Bob Thornton.
The decision to sell a controlling interest in The Mai-Kai to the Miami group did not come lightly. “We received interest from several investors wanting to partner with us in reopening The Mai-Kai,” Gelardi said in the website announcement. “We ultimately decided to select Bill Fuller and his companies because of their passion and commitment to maintain the authenticity and legacy of The Mai-Kai.”
Gelardi added: “We are very excited for this partnership and eagerly anticipate reopening our doors and welcoming back our loyal fan base to enjoy our delicious food, tropical drinks, thrilling entertainment, and unique ambiance that transports visitors to the South Seas.”
The website does not offer a firm timetable, however, stating that the “pending reopening date is scheduled to be announced after the restoration and repairs are complete.” One look at the state of the world today gives us a clue as to why the timeline will likely remain fluid. News reports are filled with stories documenting supply-chain disruptions, labor shortages, inflated costs and various other woes.
The repairs and renovations are challenging, but they should be manageable considering the team that has been assembled. The new joint venture gives The Mai-Kai a solid foundation and very capable partners with which to build a new future.
Mai-Kai cocktails: Authentic and tribute recipes, news on quarts and gallons to go
The Mai-Kai cost new partners $7.5M with renovations expected to boost value to $16M
The deal was backed by American National Bank, a Broward County community bank that provided debt financing. It includes a complete real estate transfer to the new ownership group, a transaction “in excess of $16 million, including artwork, intellectual property and future improvements to the business,” the website announcement says.
This is far more than public records indicated The Mai-Kai was valued at, which speaks volumes for the historical significance that isn’t always reflected in simplistic property appraisals. Property records show the building valued at a minimum of $3.97 million and the property valued at $570,000. The 2.69 acres fronting Federal Highway, north of Oakland Park Boulevard and south of Commercial Boulevard, includes a 150-space parking lot abutted by a bank and several furniture showrooms.
The reference to intellectual property likely refers to The Mai-Kai’s historic cocktail recipes, among other unique offerings. When the restaurant was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014, the description referred to “over a dozen registered trademark cocktails” on a menu that “has not changed since 1956.”
When the work is finished, the property – including the vintage artwork and decor, furnishings and intellectual property – will be valued at $16 million, Fuller told Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel. Fuller estimated that it would cost $30 million to reconstruct an authentic Mai-Kai from scratch in today’s dollars.
“It’s the Holy Grail of Tiki culture,” he said in the Sun-Sentinel story. “It’s one of the last remaining authentic venues remaining from that era.”
He vowed to keep the interior decor intact, including the vintage woodwork, carvings, lighting fixtures, support columns, railings and floors. Many features were brought to life by woodworking legend George Nakashima and partner Florian Gabriel. The restaurant is replete with items imported and/or created by revered California builders Oceanic Arts, who have worked with everyone from Don the Beachcomber to Disney. The furniture was custom designed by artist Al Kocab.
“Those are the things we were adamant about,” Fuller said. “It’s like a 12th century cathedral in there. You can’t buy material like that, or even replace it. They are priceless. [The family and I] both agreed on that, and so those things won’t be touched.”
Tiki Real Estate LLC, a new limited liability company created by Fuller, took out a $6 million mortgage with American National, according to real estate publication The Real Deal. The joint venture paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai, according to records.
Additional investors include Richard Oneslager (owner and organizer of The Hukilau), Jeff Roschman (a Fort Lauderdale restaurant and real estate executive), and Mark Macek (a South Florida insurance entrepreneur), according to the Sun-Sentinel.
“The kitchen will undergo a full renovation and the property will be restored to its historical condition,” the official announcement says. “Restorations and kitchen renovation of the Polynesian venue are set to begin soon and could cost close to $5 million.”
“We needed a lot of work done in the kitchen, and at the same time we thought we should do the work that was needed in the rest of the building,” Gelardi told NBC 6. “When you walk in, you’ll still feel like you’re at The Mai-Kai, she said, adding: “We might give you a few surprises, a few new items here and there.”
Past coverage: Tiki Marketplace offers a taste of The Mai-Kai
Work expected to be completed in late 2022, but partial reopening in spring possible
Fuller told The Real Deal that construction will begin immediately, with sights set on a full reopening by the end of 2022.
But according to the Sun-Sentinel report, The Mai-Kai could be partially reopened by next spring. Fuller told the newspaper that the Thornton family wants to reopen The Molokai bar first, if possible. Located just off the entrance and far removed from the damaged kitchen, the bar has been used as a staging area for takeout cocktails and parking lot gatherings.
“I want to reopen it today, but I have to be realistic,” Fuller was quoted as saying. “There’s been a backlog of permitting during the pandemic.” He added that the speed of the project will depend on how quickly building permits wind their way through the city of Oakland Park.
The Sun-Sentinel article also referred to a higher price tag – $8.5 million over the next six to 14 months – to refurbish and upgrade The Mai-Kai property. Fuller told the newspaper that plans call for state-of-the-art kitchens, new air-conditioning systems, a replacement roof, more tropical landscaping and the daunting task of bringing The Mai-Kai up to modern building codes with new electrical wiring and plumbing.
While work has yet to begin on the site, much planning has already been done, according to a source close to the sale. The deal has been in the works for months as details were hammered out, and site planning is well underway, we were told. Engineers, architects and contractors have been working on plans, which call for a complete overhaul of the back of house, including not only the kitchen and legendary back bar, but also staff facilities and offices.
In addition to the new kitchen and offices, a huge chunk of the renovation budget will go toward much-needed repairs of the roof and infrastructure. This includes the electrical and air-conditioning systems along with bringing the entire property up to current building codes. The bar and dining rooms will not be changed drastically but will likely get a comprehensive refresh.
There are also tentative plans to turn the porte-cochère area outside the front entrance into a lush and tropical outdoor seating area that would expand The Molokai bar. This is where The Mai-Kai has been hosting regular cocktail parties and serving to-go quarts and gallons of its famous cocktails. If this plan comes to fruition, it would require relocating the entrance to the parking lot. But we’ve heard of no other major changes to the footprint of the property.
In every interview, Fuller resolutely stated his goal to keep the historic property intact. “There is really nothing to change,” he told The Real Deal. “We are going to preserve so much of its history.”
Polynesian Islander Revue will remain cornerstone of The Mai-Kai experience
Also unlikely to change is the restaurant’s signature entertainment. The youthful Mireille Thornton, 83, will remain creative director, show choreographer and costume designer of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
“My mom is going to continue programming the choreography of the Polynesian shows, designing the costumes, teaching the dancers,” Gelardi told the Sun-Sentinel. “The show will still be her show.”
Since its inception in the early ’60s, the dinner show has packed the main showroom with tourists and locals alike, featuring performers and musicians who hail from throughout the Pacific islands. The elaborate bar, dining rooms and grounds are a never-ending maze of eye candy and cozy nooks that allow guests to escape to a tropical paradise. The indoor space alone encompasses 26,913 square feet.
“Mrs. T” was in great spirits at The Hukilau event, greeting villagers and leading groups in hula dance lessons. She began her career as a dancer in the show, later marrying owner Bob Thornton and assuming ownership after his death in 1989.
Gelardi and her husband, John, will also remain as key members of the management team along with longtime director of public relations Pia Dahlquist, the source revealed. Another key member of the team is Kern Mattei, a second-generation manager and nephew of Mireille Thornton. (Thornton’s son, Dave Levy, retired from his managing owner role during the early months of the pandemic.)
Under terms of the deal, the family will remain a “major stakeholder with decision authority” and will continue operating The Mai-Kai with help from Mad Room Hospitality, Fuller told the Sun-Sentinel. Gelardi said all of The Mai-Kai’s employees will be rehired.
The Mai-Kai was opened on Dec. 28, 1956, by Chicago brothers Bob and Jack Thornton. Inspired by groundbreaking themed restaurants Don the Beachcomber’s and Trader Vic’s, they spent more than $300,000 to create the world’s grandest Polynesian palace. It was reported to be the most expensive restaurant built that year.
By all accounts, they succeeded spectacularly. In its first year, The Mai-Kai earned more than $1 million, making it one of the most successful restaurants of its time. For years, it sold more rum than any location in the United States. Its cocktails are legendary, many featuring secret recipes that go all the way back to Don the Beachcomber’s trailblazing classics of the 1930s.
It’s the last remaining Tiki temple carrying on many traditions of the mid-century Polynesian supper club. Guests are enveloped by an intoxicating environment featuring flamboyant flaming drinks and desserts, sarong-clad servers, and The Mai-Kai’s trademark Mystery Girl and Mystery Drink.
The Mai-Kai has always attracted VIPs and Hollywood stars, from Johnny Carson in the 1960s to Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson in the 21st century. Johnny was so enamored, he brought a Mystery Girl on The Tonight Show to serve himself and cohort Ed McMahon the giant drink.
The original building, including the futuristic A-frame, was designed by acclaimed architect Charles F. McKirahan Sr.
Known for his distinctive “Tropical American Modernism” style, McKirahan made a huge impact on Fort Lauderdale that is still admired today. A bus and walking tour of properties McKirahan designed will be held on Oct. 16, starting at The Mai-Kai. [Click here for more info]
A 1970 expansion designed by another noted mid-century architect, Richard C. Reilly, ushered in a redesign of The Molokai featuring distinctive nautical elements salvaged from the 1962 Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty. A Disney-esque feature makes the windows appear to be in the midst of a constant rainfall. The illusion and decor transport you to a turn-of-the-century South Seas seaport saloon.
New owners combine preservation and hospitality to revive historic venues
Entrusted with preserving this institution is a well-organized real estate investment and hospitality group. Fuller makes it clear that he feels privileged to be leading the effort to preserve The Mai-Kai. As he told The Real Deal: “This is the type of project that resonates with our ethos of engaging in projects with history and legacy. It is truly one of the most iconic venues in the U.S.”
He considers himself a conservator rather than an owner. “This is a community asset, this is a Florida asset, this is a United States asset. And it’s something we’re going to protect, preserve and expand upon,” Fuller told CBS 4. “It’s really an incredible opportunity to preserve a rich part of our history.”
This preservation mindset has served him well at his other properties in South Florida. The South Florida native joined with Martin Pinilla to create the Barlington Group, an urban real estate development company committed to revitalizing neighborhoods in Miami and across 24 states.
It has acquired, developed and managed commercial projects worth more than $250 million. The official website says the group focuses on “asset repositioning” of multi-family, retail, office, hotel, and mixed-use buildings.
Past projects include Copper Door BNB in Overtown; Kroma Arts Space in Coconut Grove; and Little Havana’s Futurama Arts Marketplace, Calle Ocho Goodwill and (coming soon) Tower Hotel. The firm’s success in helping revitalize Miami’s historic Little Havana is notable, gaining national recognition for enriching the neighborhood while respecting its culture, people and energy. Among Barlington’s investments in local hospitality venues are Blackbird Ordinary, Union Beer, Toasted Bagelry, and Brickell Mattress.
Fuller hooked up with brothers Zack and Ben Bush to launch Miami-based Mad Room Hospitality, which combines the same historic preservation mantra with modern food and beverage expertise. In 2014, they reinvented Ball & Chain, a Little Havana nightclub dating back to the 1930s and known for hosting musical legends Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Chet Baker. (Ball and Chain is temporarily closed due to an ongoing dispute with the city.) Mad Room also preserved Taquerias El Mexicano, a Calle Ocho landmark since 1985, and developed the Los Altos lounge above it.
When the opportunity to preserve The Mai-Kai presented itself, it struck a chord. Fuller recalls visiting the restaurant with his grandparents in his youth, telling the Sun-Sentinel: “I was the guy who wanted to buy the cool Tiki mug, and escaped into the awesome Polynesian shows. This is a dream come true.”
Past coverage: 10 reasons why we love The Mai-Kai
Thornton family’s determination to preserve legacy helped seal the deal
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Fuller praised the Thornton family for staying true to the restaurant’s original vision for more than six decades.
“We are lovers of history, merging passion for preservation and capital to protect this, but the really beautiful moment is that the family never sold out,” he said. “So many times in legacy businesses, the family will go for the highest and best dollar. That’s the beautiful part — the family cared more about the legacy than the highest investment. That’s the defining moment.”
Last year, after the “panic and shock” of the roof collapse sunk in, the Thorntons set about finding a solution, Gelardi told the Sun-Sentinel. They faced millions of dollars in repairs but wanted to preserve what for many in the family was the only business they’ve known. “We weren’t always sure it was going to be possible,” she said.
But it was the restaurant’s longtime customers who cemented their decision to reopen The Mai-Kai, come hell or high water. Gelardi spoke of customers calling in tears, recalling memorable visits – from Thanksgiving dinners, to weddings and anniversaries – over the decades. “It really got to us and made us realize we could never close this place down,” the Sun-Sentinel quoted her as saying.
When the building and property went up for sale in January, the family was met with more than 100 offers, but none to their liking. Developers suggested tearing the restaurant down and replacing it with “a hip, modernized Mai-Kai,” the Sun-Sentinel story says. Others wanted the land for something else entirely.
But the Thorntons stood firm in the hopes that a white knight would soon arrive. As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
“What convinced us is Bill wanted it to be as close as possible to the original blueprint,” Gelardi said in the article. “He’s very passionate when he speaks. He literally moved us with his desire to bring the restaurant back.”
The last infrastructure refurbishment was completed in 2009 following years of hurricane damage. Recent work has been more cosmetic, including updating all the vintage lighting to LED bulbs. No work on this large a scale has been done at The Mai-Kai since the 1970 expansion that added the current Molokai lounge.
That $1 million project (in 1970 dollars) included an expansion of the dining rooms, extensive landscaping of what is now the Tiki garden, and the construction of the 7,000-square-foot back-of-house section that fell victim to the October 2020 storm. Also added were the historic Chinese wood-burning ovens, positioned near the walking path to the garden and luckily away from the main area of damage. We’re told that the ovens, among only a few of their kind in the country, will be restored and remain an integral part of the kitchen.
The 1970 expansion also increased the restaurant’s capacity from 350 to its current 450, plus another 150 in The Molokai. On a busy night, The Mai-Kai can service more than 700 diners comfortably at any one time. All that space will be needed when The Mai-Kai’s fervent followers flock back for the grand re-opening.
The Mai-Kai’s longtime fans react with joy, relief on social media
The news of The Mai-Kai’s reopening was definitely music to the ears of The Mai-Kai’s many followers. The outpouring was immediate and extensive online. By the next morning, there were more than 5,700 reactions to the Facebook post with 1,400+ comments and 2,600+ shares. More than 2,900 liked the official Instagram post. Reactions also took over dedicated Facebook groups including Friends of The Mai-Kai and Save the Mai-Kai.
“This is the news we have all been hoping and waiting for! I think I speak for everyone when I say that Mai Kai holds such a special place in our hearts and in our lives,” one loyalist wrote on Instagram. Another added: “Awesome! Mad Room had some great concepts and I’m sure they’ll be great partners!”
On Facebook, fans new and old chimed in with comments that show The Mai-Kai’s wide generational appeal: “Fantastic news. Been going there since the mid 1960’s when my parents and grandparents would take me there,” one guest said. Another added: “Can’t wait to introduce my kids and grandkids to the Mai Kai! Welcome back!”
“My parents are celebrating in heaven for us,” someone shared. Another said: “My wife was there opening night. Thrilled for the family! We will return!”
Others were more emotional:
“Best news!!! I am all teary. Every day I drive by and hope. And now I can truly breathe easier when I see the tall sign.”
“So incredibly thrilled. Many of us locals have a lifetime of memories at Mai-Kai. Walking through those doors always transported us to an amazing time surrounded by family and friends. Thank you for allowing us to experience that again.”
This passion helps explains why time and great care were taken to craft the new ownership deal. Over the next year, we expect to see that same passion go into the renovations and reopening.
In the meantime, let’s hoist a hardy Barrel O’ Rum in appreciation.
EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers
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
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
Explore The Mai-Kai in 3-D | Filmed by Google in the fall of 2015
PAST ATOMIC GROG COVERAGE
Tiki Marketplace offers a taste of The Mai-Kai
The July 18 event featured vintage art and collectibles, food trucks, plus authentic Mai-Kai cocktails and entertainment.
The Mai-Kai hosts first Tiki Marketplace featuring vendors, entertainers, cocktails, rum tasting and more
The historic restaurant may be closed for repairs, but a new event took advantage of the large parking lot for a safe and fun-filled day featuring the generous spirit of ‘ohana.
Thousands of fans unite to show support for The Mai-Kai during closing
More than 10,000 have signed a petition and thousands are flooding social media channels as the historic restaurant plans events, take-home cocktails while potential partners/owners are sought.
The Mai-Kai celebrates 64th anniversary as extent of flooding damage, closing detailed
* Fund raisers, online sales aid The Mai-Kai during closure
* The Mai-Kai celebrates Hulaween 2020 with drive-in movie party
* The Mai-Kai re-releases signature rum, glassware, spirits menu
* Cocktail quarts join gallons as The Mai-Kai expands takeout menu
Okole Maluna Society: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
Hurricane Hayward reviews and rates the historic restaurant’s current and past tropical drinks, plus reveals a treasure trove of ancestor and exclusive tribute recipes.
The Rums of The Mai-Kai symposium on Inside the Desert Oasis Room
Hear the presentation featuring Hurricane Hayward and Matt Pietrek of Cocktail Wonk live on stage at The Mai-Kai during the closing festivities of The Hukilau 2019.
The Mai-Kai Walking Tour on Marooned: A Texas Tiki Podcast
Join The Atomic Grog for a Mai-Kai history lesson with carver Will Anders and manager Kern Mattei. It’s a real Tiki museum audio walking tour.
Previous stories: New giant carved Tiki added to outdoor garden
‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai
Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant
Get the definitive book on the historic Tiki temple by Tim “Swanky” Glazner, check out the website and social media pages.