When The Mai-Kai completes a multimillion-dollar renovation, guests of the historic restaurant will be treated to several major enhancements, including a more immersive arrival experience and a new banquet hall.
The head of the new ownership group broke the news and unveiled artist renderings during an online presentation for the city of Oakland Park and The Mai-Kai’s neighborhood residents in late April.
Also crucial to the reopening plans for the 65-year-old Polynesian palace, the refurbishment includes upgrading the aging roofs and air conditioning system, along with the ground-up construction of a new kitchen.
Fans of The Mai-Kai’s vintage look and feel should not fear these changes, however. The chief executive who leads both the land management firm that bought a controlling interest and the hospitality company that will be operating The Mai-Kai says there are no plans to alter the experience once guests walk through the doors.
This includes a planned revival of the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. From the nautical-themed Molokai bar to the dining rooms named for South Seas islands, a night at The Mai-Kai will remain a transportive time capsule considered to be the last grand mid-century Polynesian supper club in the world.
“There are thousands of beautiful historic properties all over the world that are sitting vacant without their proper use, said Bill Fuller, managing partner of Miami’s Barlington Group “This is just an amazing example of a historic property that is sustainable.” Fuller’s real estate development company specializes in revitalizing cultural institutions and neighborhoods across the country.
In a question-and-answer session after the April 26 meeting to share the “plans and visions” for the reopening, Fuller spoke in realistic terms about how to best preserve The Mai-Kai: “Although we are restricted based on the historic preservation, it is absolutely imperative that we are successful from a business perspective so that we can preserve all the other great attributes of The Mai-Kai,” he said. “Not just the architectural features, but the entire immersive experience including the shows, the music, the food, the drinks.”
The new ownership team, led by Fuller’s Tiki Real Estate LLC, paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage. The real estate purchase is valued at more than $16 million. “Over the last few months, we have been developing plans and securing permits,” Fuller said at the start of the neighborhood participation meeting. “We anticipate reopening in the fall of this coming year.”
“We care deeply about the community of Oakland Park and are grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve had,” Fuller said. After the presentation, a neighborhood resident praised the plans and said he was thrilled that The Mai-Kai will be returning as a staple destination in the area. “It will be a great day to see it open,” he added.
Roof project: Crucial work underway to shore up historic structure
Entrance experience: Flow of parking lot to be reimagined
New event space: Banquet hall planned next to reconstructed kitchen
Behind the scenes: The Mai-Kai interior intact with exciting additions in the works
What’s next? New owner promises continued effort to restore and upgrade
A blessing in disguise? Roof collapse leads to ownership change, renovations
The Mai-Kai is a local and national historic landmark, a beloved Polynesian restaurant that opened on Dec. 28, 1956. For more than six decades, it resolutely withstood the tests of time and gained a loyal worldwide following among of generations of guests.
But all that changed suddenly and dramatically in October 2020, when a blast of intense tropical weather led to the collapse of the aging roof over the kitchen. The damage rendered a large swath of the back-of-house beyond repair. This rear addition, which featured a flat roof and was not part of the original A-frame, was built during an expansion in the early 1970s.
Facing the biggest crisis in the restaurant’s history, The Mai-Kai owners signed a deal late last year that ensures both the future of the enduring brand and the family legacy started by brothers Robert and Jack Thornton. The family matriarch and widow of Bob Thornton, former Polynesian Islander Revue performer Mireille Thornton, will remain the show’s creative director as well as The Mai-Kai’s heart and soul.
Key family and management will continue to steer the ship, but the future of The Mai-Kai is now in the very capable hands of Fuller and his companies. Several Barlington Group properties – including Ball and Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano in Little Havana’s historic Calle Ocho – are also managed by Mad Room Hospitality.
“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 family said in the announcement of the sale in September.
Fans and followers of The Mai-Kai have been on the edge of their seats ever since, wondering what was going to happen to their beloved Tiki temple. Now, finally, we’re about to find out what Fuller and his team have in store for us.
“For over 60 years, The Mai-Kai has hosted millions who enjoy an immersive Polynesian experience,” Fuller said at the top of his Oakland Park presentation. “My companies formed a partnership with the Thornton family and we are collectively investing heavily to restore The Mai-Kai so that we can all enjoy it for the next 60 years.”
Following is our exclusive sneak preview of what’s coming. Fuller will reveal even more details on June 11 during a special presentation at The Hukilau, the longtime Tiki weekender that has called The Mai-Kai home since 2003. Tickets are still available for the event, which will also feature a Mai-Kai pop-up bar and entertainment from across the worldwide Tiki scene.
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ROOF PROJECT: Crucial work underway to shore up historic structure
The initial phase of The Mai-Kai’s renovation is already nearing completion. An extensive roof project will bring all of the existing structure up to modern standards and give the aging infrastructure some much-needed reinforcement.
Over the years, The Mai-Kai’s leaky roof became an unfortunate feature. But tarps hanging in The Molokai bar to catch errant rainwater are now a thing of the past.
The roof work is progressing in stages, manager Kern Mattei told us during a recent tour. A map in the office shows a detailed view of the project, with the roof work divided into nine areas.
The new roof will also herald the arrival of a much-needed new air-conditioning system, both of which constitute a “significant investment” in the future, Fuller said. Separate units in various places on the roof will be able to cool the restaurant strategically, and much more efficiently, Mattei said. A new unit can already be spotted atop The Molokai, an area where the roof work is wrapping up.
This modern HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system replaces the old chiller system and its water cooling tower hidden behind the abandoned Bora Bora building to the north of the porte-cochère. The clearing of this area will also play a large part in one the projects presented by Fuller at the neighborhood meeting.
Oakland Park city code requires such a meeting prior to a development site plan application submission. According to the city website, The Mai-Kai’s plan is asking for “reconfiguration of the site and buildings” in at least two phases. Fuller outlined these two distinct projects during the meeting.
Entrance experience: Flow of parking lot to be reimagined
The first impression most guests get of The Mai-Kai is arriving at the main entrance through the distinctive porte-cochère. Due to The Mai-Kai’s popularity, traffic often backs up onto busy Federal Highway before vehicles can make the right turn and traverse the iconic wooden bridge.
Designed and added during the early 1970s redesign of The Molokai, the bridge creates a rumbling sound when cars pass over. These simulated rumbles of thunder add to the immersive experience in the bar, where the windows are covered with a constant faux rainstorm that adds to the illusion of being trapped in a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon.
Fuller says the traffic problem will be solved as part of a striking new entrance, complete with water features and tropical landscaping. The redesigned entrance is “more fitting for the reopening of The Mai-Kai on many levels,” Fuller said during the presentation intended to give the neighbors in Oakland Park a preview of the renovation plans.
The design team, led by Kravit Architectural Associates of Boca Raton, proposed a new concept for vehicle flow after conducting parking and traffic studies. “We have come up with this plan of creating a traffic circle so we can have traffic come in through Federal Highway and alleviate the stacking concerns,” Fuller said.
The wooden bridge will remain, Fuller said, promising that “we’re going to protect it in its state.” But immediately after crossing the bridge, cars will veer to the right over the footprint of the existing Bora Bora building, which will be removed.
This stand-alone building was added in the 1960s as a banquet room, then later converted into a gift shop and later used for storage. It hasn’t been open to the public since it was damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
The Bora Bora Room is included in The Mai-Kai’s historic designation documents, so Fuller admits it may take some finagling to remove but is worth the effort. Plans also include a partial removal, if necessary.
Fuller said he deeply respects the historic aspect of the building, but “the benefits of the driveway and the roundabout are really important to the viability of The Mai-Kai.” He said that creating a “large runway for the valet” will also accommodate a growing legion of rideshare services.
The ownership team’s recent experience, along with trends at The Mai-Kai prior to closing, have led them to project that 25 percent of guests will use rideshare. The revamped thoroughfare will make it easy for the drivers drop off, pick up, or wait for guests.
Beyond the building, the plans pay respect to the area’s natural resources by preserving the most important trees, Fuller said. This includes “two extremely mature banyan trees that have been there for decades as well as a tropical clusia tree,” he said.
While not mentioned during the meeting, this part of the plan will also include the addition of outdoor seating for The Molokai bar, which straddles the existing driveway. The added green space in this area will allow for al fresco dining near the porte-cochère, which will also be refurbished.
The changes will not significantly affect the size of the parking lot, Fuller said, adding that the design takes into account the sensitivities of residents on neighboring Northeast 20th Avenue. Several of the back entrances to the parking lot will be closed, he said, and the new roundabout will include “very lush landscaping” that will “provide for additional coverage and screening.”
“We’re going to invest heavily in additional landscaping,” Fuller told residents. He said he and his team hope to enhance both the “guest experience” and “neighbor experience.” Visibility into The Mai-Kai parking lot will be greatly diminished, he said.
The lush tropical landscaping “will provide both a fully immersed experience for our guests as they drive in to The Mai-Kai, and also not create any light pollution and annoyance to the neighbors,” he said.
Fuller said he wants the area to look like The Mai-Kai, not the back service area of The Mai-Kai. The intent is to “reinterpret the entire site” so you feel like you’re at The Mai-Kai “whether it’s from the rear, the front, or the side,” he said.
Much of work will be done by KWD Landscape Architecture of Delray Beach. “They have a lot of experience and extensive knowledge of South Florida,” Fuller said.
Fuller was assisted during the presentation by Stacey Boynton, a senior architectural designer at Kravit Architectural who created the visual presentation of the renderings and blueprints.
They praised all of the members of the design team, including OMN&J Structural Engineers of West Palm Beach and KAMM Consulting, a Deerfield Beach consulting engineering firm. Those are the two firms working on structural and MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) engineering projects.
Referring to the extensive talents of the design team, Fuller predicted: “I think we’re going to come up with something very special for a place that’s already very special.”
Another member of the team, “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, has been tasked with designing the second major piece of the renovation plan. A former Disney Imagineer and Universal Creative designer, Allsmiller has “extensive knowledge of Polynesian design and a vision for The Mai-Kai,” Fuller said. More on that project below.
New event space: Banquet hall planned next to revamped kitchen
The second major project discussed at the April 26 online meeting with Oakland Park residents was the rebuilding of The Mai-Kai’s back-of-house area that was removed after massive damage caused by the October 2020 roof collapse.
Bill Fuller, the managing partner of Barlington Group, gave new details on the cause of the roof collapse that led to his company partnering with The Mai-Kai family to invest millions into the refurbishment. It was not the storm itself, but “an unfortunate water leak” from one of the fire sprinklers that went off late that night that led to the flooding and eventual roof collapse, he said.
Over the course of several hours, water inundated the roofing materials, causing them to become “almost like a sponge,” he said. After a few days, the added weight led to the collapse of the flat roof over the kitchen area.
The rear addition – built in 1972 – included offices on the north end, storage space on the south end, and the large kitchen in the middle. No historic artifacts were lost, Fuller noted, but the entire kitchen and storage areas had to be gutted. The office space remains functional and is currently used by manager Kern Mattei and other staff during the renovations.
Fuller showed off the plans for the reimagined back-of-house, which will include the same outer walls. Only the inner areas were damaged. “We are not intending to change any of the existing footprint of the building,” he said.
But within that framework, big changes are afoot. “With the advancements in technology and kitchen equipment, and the greater efficiencies that have evolved in the last 50 years, we’re able to condense the kitchen into about half of that size,” Fuller said. Instead of 7,000 square feet, the new kitchen will only need 3,500.
Next to the modern kitchen, Fuller and his team are proposing a 3,500-square-foot dedicated event space that will be available to host the many weddings, gatherings, and special events that take place at The Mai-Kai. “We think it’s going to be a great addition to the venue,” he said. “It’s going to allow for us to host many events without compromising the existing show features.”
Having the large banquet hall will give the restaurant much more flexibility in hosting events from large to small, he said. And it would eliminate the need to close the bar or a dining room.
“Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller is heading up the design of this new addition, which will be located in the area behind where the Chinese ovens now stand. The ovens will be moved closer to the new kitchen, and guests will enter the event space at the end of the hall that now dead-ends at the ovens.
Allsmiller is a talented craftsman who spent years working on attractions for Disney and Universal parks before embarking on his own as a Tiki design specialist. His solo projects include the Suffering Bastard bar in Sanford and a Polynesian-themed vacation home in Orlando.
Fuller noted that the banquet hall plans are subject to historic preservation guidelines since the design calls for a new A-frame roof. The kitchen will retain its flat roof, next to the A-frame section, he said. In a later interview, he said that lacking the approval of the A-frame, the event space could still be built with a flat roof.
But he said he hopes to convince Oakland Park officials that the new A-frame is “architecturally consistent with the main A-frame.” It will be a thatched roof designed in a traditional Polynesian style, he said. “We believe it’s consistent with all of the virtues architecturally that The Mai-Kai was recognized for in its historic designation.”
He also added that the images shown at the meeting were a “first glimpse” and not full renderings. But, he added, they’re a “good representation of what we are proposing.” The A-frame plans, along with the removal of the Bora Bora Room, are headed for review by the Oakland Park planning department.
Considering the “very, very poor condition” of the Bora Bora building, Fuller made the case for its removal in the Q&A session after the meeting. “We believe that our addition of the new event space replaces any space that would be lost,” he said.
The new venue will be a “great addition for the next 60 years of The Mai-Kai,” said Fuller, a historic preservation purist and member of the Dade Heritage Trust. He was quick to add, however, that the plans for The Mai-Kai also need to ensure its survival as a viable business.
The Mai-Kai footprint is a massive 26,000-square-foot structure on a 2.7-acre site with additional gardens and landscaping. “It’s an extremely expensive undertaking from a maintenance perspective,” he said. What it takes to “run something of this magnitude” is not to be underestimated.
Behind the scenes: The Mai-Kai interior intact with exciting additions in the works
While the proposed changes to The Mai-Kai’s driveway thoroughfare, kitchen, and event space move forward, not much will change in the historic dining rooms that constitute most of the guest experience.
At the start of the neighborhood meeting, fuller introduced The Mai-Kai’s longtime owner and family matriarch, Mireille Thornton: “We are so honored that Mireille is going to continue the legacy of the production of The Mai-Kai shows, the choreography, the costume designing, all a major part of the immersive experience.”
Fuller said he and his team are “honored that we’re able to collaborate with her and preserve the history and the heritage, and continue to build on this rich foundation.” He added that “all of the members of our group collectively are preservationists at heart.”
While showing slides of the elaborately decorated interior, Fuller said: “We are working painstakingly to make sure that all of these artifacts are going to preserved.” The same care will be taken with the outdoor gardens and landscaping, he said.
Inside, important upgrades may not even be noticeable to guests. Lamps are being retrofitted with LED lights, Fuller said. In an interview a few weeks after the neighborhood meeting, he said that the changes “do not impact the aesthetic” of the historic property.
After a recent tour that allowed for a quick peek, I can confirm that everything guests love about the interior of The Mai-Kai remains intact. Furniture and valuable artifacts are being moved around to avoid dust from the roof work, but no major changes are anticipated.
Even the old furniture will remain, manager Kern Mattei said. The chairs are in the process of being restored and rewrapped, he said. New furniture will likely be added for the new banquet room, along with the possible outdoor expansion of The Molokai bar.
The gift shop will stay in the same location in the former Bangkok dining room with its vaulted ceilings and elegant theme.
All of the thatching on the porte-cochère will be replaced, Mattei said, and tentative plans call for the iconic A-frame to be re-thatched in the back, which hasn’t been done in years.
The wood-fired ovens will be dismantled and rebuilt, brick by brick, in their new location with a similar viewing window. Mattei noted that they’ve been taken apart before, so he’s not too worried about the task. He’s looking forward to the views of the Tiki garden from the platform that will remain near the entrance to the event space.
The landscapers will “spruce up,” update, and fix any problems in the gardens, he said.
Behind the scenes, we toured the massive space that will soon contain both the kitchen and banquet hall. When the roof came down, the hole was “the size of a pickup truck,” Mattei said. When that happened, it went from “a couple thousand dollars in repairs to a multimillion-dollar project.”
Some of the cross-beams were bent, so the entire area had to be gutted. The support walls are solid, however, and he noted that engineers were impressed with the strength of the building’s 65-year-old foundation.
While the new kitchen will be rebuilt in roughly the same spot, The Mai-Kai’s famous back bar will move into a new space just to the north of the rebuild. This is the back-of-house area that wasn’t damaged in the roof collapse.
It was thrilling to walk into the new space, though it’s still totally stripped down to bare walls. It was formerly a locker room for performers. Mattei said that new facilities for the staff will be added elsewhere in the office area.
The spot where the new main service bar will will be built is very close to the location of the original 1956 kitchen, before the 1970s addition. The old kitchen became back offices when the new kitchen opened.
As part of the new bar design, Typhoon Tommy is working on a project to make the back wall a display area for The Mai-Kai’s historic rum collection, Mattei said. And perhaps some mugs as well. We’ve seen photos of the rums after they were removed from the bar, so we knew they were safe. But it’s a relief to know they will have a new home where they can continue to be seen and appreciated by anyone who tours the legendary back bar.
* Past coverage: Tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen (2011)
There are many other plans in the works for the cocktails and bar experience, but they will need to remain secret until a later date. Many classic elements of the dining and drinking experience are being refreshed or revived, including a new authentic fabric for staff aloha shirts. New mugs, swizzle sticks, coasters, and more items are on the drawing board.
What’s next? New owner promises continued effort to restore and upgrade
Several weeks after the Oakland Park presentation, Fuller gave us some additional details and expanded on his vision for The Mai-Kai.
He spoke passionately about The Mai-Kai, full of excitement and optimism, but fully aware of his responsibility. He has had much first-hand experience over the years, having grown up in South Florida and being introduced to The Mai-Kai with family in his youth.
Fuller said he appreciates that generations of guests have fond memories, from weddings to family gatherings. He said he understands “the magic and romance of it.”
The Mai-Kai’s historic elements are documented in great detail as part of the local and federal designations. Fuller said there needs to be some “separation” between the original vision of The Mai-Kai (through the 1970s), and any changes that were made in the 1980s or ’90s. It can be “a little bit of a challenge” determining what’s truly historic, he said.
His goal, he said, is to reinvigorate the ideals and intentions of the founding Thornton brothers. He imagines “stepping back into their shoes” to preserve the legacy and “the original themes” that made the restaurant great. He said the restaurant provides a “full experience of escapism” that very few venues can offer.
Fuller said he and the design team, along with the Thornton family and management, are carefully going over “every square inch” of the site to make sure the integrity is preserved. “It’s going to be great” when it’s finished, he said.
The family should be praised for making the preservation of The Mai-Kai the top priority, Fuller said. Many owners of historic properties sell out to the highest bidder.
The challenge moving forward, he said, is keeping all of the historic elements while also improving and enhancing the experience for guests. These concerns are at the heart of the current plans for the entryway and new event space.
The next step is submitting final plans to the city, which should be imminent. After that, there will be committee meetings as the plans wind their way through the city of Oakland Park.
Final approval of some of the items may not come until the fall, but plans are moving forward to have the existing bar and dining rooms ready for a fall opening, Fuller said.
He also hinted that the opening will not be the end of the enhancements. “We’ve got some great stuff planned in the future,” he said. He welcomes all artists and craftspeople who want to work with The Mai-Kai on future projects.
Guests of The Hukilau will get a timely opportunity hear any updated news on the plans directly from Fuller when he gives an exclusive presentation during the annual Tiki weekender on Saturday, June 11. The event at the Beachcomber Resort on the ocean in Pompano Beach will also feature Mai-Kai cocktails served during events on Thursday and Friday. Takeout quarts and gallons will also be offered to ticketholders, available for pickup at The Mai-Kai on Sunday, June 12. Tickets are still available at TheHukilau.com.
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