Following a flurry of activity in April that included the removal of the 50-year-old Bora Bora building, the non-stop work over the past two months was less flamboyant but just as crucial in the multimillion-dollar restoration of the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in South Florida.
RELATED: Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)
SEE BELOW: Chronology of work | Timeline and permits
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By early July, significant infrastructure work was moving at a rapid pace. A complete electrical system overhaul was underway, including the installation of new breaker boxes that will pave the way for a new air-conditioning system.
A half dozen new “fresh air units” were being lifted onto the roof by crane. This modern HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system replaces the decades-old chiller system that included the now-demolished cooling tower behind the Bora Bora building
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Once the new electrical grid is operational and they flip the switch on the new AC system, the entire building will be cooled for the first time since the October 2020 roof collapse that triggered the restaurant’s closing and eventual sale in September 2021.
The expansive refurbishments are being driven by the new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller. His real estate investment firm, Barlington Group, has a track record of restoring vintage properties, including Miami’s iconic Ball & Chain.
The Little Havana hotspot is run by sister company Mad Room Hospitality, which will also take the operational reins at The Mai-Kai. The founding Thornton family, which remains part of the ownership group, will retain a significant role along with some of its long-standing management team.
To make The Mai-Kai operational by a projected fall reopening, Mad Room and Mai-Kai managers are working feverishly to get a new kitchen up and running. The old kitchen was damaged beyond repair when torrential rains combined with a malfunctioning sprinkler system flooded the 1970s-era back-of-house roof, causing it to collapse.
The 7,000-square-foot space where the kitchen once stood remains an empty shell with walls but no roof, awaiting Phase 2 of the renovation project. Estimated to be completed a year or more after Phase 1, this ambitious plan includes not only a new state-of-the-art kitchen, but also a 3,500-square-foot event center with a soaring A-frame roof. It will fill a much-needed niche in servicing The Mai-Kai’s market for large groups and events.
In the meantime, the existing back of house area that escaped damage is being reconfigured to accommodate a new, temporary kitchen. It will also be upgraded to include new staff facilities and a new restroom for guests with special needs.
Last but not least, The Mai-Kai’s legendary back service bar will be reinstalled in a large space that formerly contained a locker room for staff and performers in the Polynesian Islander Revue, the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii). Smaller locker rooms are being built next to the existing back management offices, which are undergoing minimal refurbishments.
Below is a chronological recap of all the infrastructure work that has happened since the Bora Bora Room’s removal in April.
MAY AND JUNE UPDATES
EARLY MAY: Work advanced on multiple fronts, including the installation of new air-conditioning ducts. In the back of house, the removal of the old concrete floor began.
As manager Kern Mattei explained, it’s easier to remove the floor and start fresh with new plumbing and electrical rather than do it piecemeal. “They’ll come back with one of those big trucks and fill it all up,” he told us over the loud hum of saws and clanging of heavy equipment. In a matter of days, the thick floor was cut up and excavated.
MID-MAY: Work progressed in the back of house as crews dug out trenches for new sewage and grease trap lines. The back gardens received some cleanup, but nothing new.
LATE MAY: The underground plumbing work was finished in the back of house. Workers could be seen covering the pipes with dirt, preparing for the concrete floor to be poured. Thinking ahead, the soda machine vendor proposed dropping lines underground to help streamline the kitchen operation.
Demolition work started in the women’s restroom with a hired crew doing basic construction, tearing out old wood and doing prep work for creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. “Then all he has to do is come in and do the beautification,” Mattei said. This “demolition team” has been a big help in speeding up the restoration.
Meanwhile, crews were in the gift shop working on multiple jobs. Formerly the Bangkok dining room, The Mai-Kai Trading Post is decorated with ornate fixtures and lamps similar to the women’s restroom. Looking up to the ceiling was always a feast for the eyes.
Now, a tall ladder extends to the upper reaches to allow access to the air-conditioning vents. The demolition crew was also starting preliminary work, taking out bad wood and repairing basic wall and ceiling structures.
EARLY JUNE – Florida Power & Light finally shut down all the power to The Mai-Kai on Monday, June 5, allowing electricians to move forward on rewiring the entire restaurant to add new main breaker boxes. The job is expected to last more than a month, but in the meantime a generator sitting in the footprint of the old kitchen will power all the crucial needs of the crews on site.
As detailed in our overview of the project in March, the lines need to be rerouted and new breakers added to ensure proper distribution. There will be five circuits evenly spread across the property to provide an optimal system.
By the time the new system is up and running, the new rooftop AC units should be installed and ready to run. Mattei, Allsmiller and anyone who works there daily is looking forward to a climate-controlled workspace.
Meanwhile, work continued in the back of house as rebar was added in advance of concrete being poured. Directly across from the current women’s restroom, the area that will become the entrance to the new handicapped restroom was also being prepped. The wall was removed and wood was set aside for Allsmiller to “work his magic,” Mattei said.
The gift shop was still a demolition zone as crews removed old wood that had been rotted by roof leaks. Swaths of damaged walls and floor were reinforced.
The demolition team also began working on the Lanai, the outdoor dining area adjacent to the Tiki garden, as well as the walkway that stretches around the front of the building and into the garden behind the stage. They removed damaged wood and decorative panels from the ceiling, exposing the crossbeams underneath. The metal roof on the Lanai will be restored, along with the matting and panels.
MID-JUNE – The demolition crew was hard at work in the gift shop, concentrating on the water-damaged northwest corner. They rebuilt an entire wall down to the studs and reinforced the raised floor. The Mai-Kai Trading Post will now be restored to its original glory.
A milestone was reached when concrete was poured in the new kitchen and service bar. “We have floors now,” Mattei said with joy and relief after the long process.
At the last minute, electricians buried wiring underneath to make adding the new breakers easier, but there were no complications. The truck arrived on June 15 and the floor was dry and ready to walk on by the next day.
LATE JUNE – Walls were quickly going up in the back of house area that will contain the back service bar, temporary kitchen, staff offices and more. The building was continuing to run on generator power as electricians work on the new electrical system. The main office has a portable air-conditioning unit available when needed.
Out back in the garden, we got a look at the refurbished wooden tikis carved by Will Anders. King Kai is looking good after getting a new coat of sealant. In the center of the garden, Hiroa Nui’s recent coat of stain is starting to get worn in.
Mattei will soon welcome a specialist who deals with water features to the work on the waterfalls and rock work in the garden. He said they will also tap Anders to make more concrete tikis from historic molds made of the original carvings by the Thornton brothers. “We’ll replace the ones with broken legs and arms,” he said.
TIMELINE AND PERMITS
Potential fall reopening may hinge on completion of parking lot work
As detailed in our story from March (“The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects”), the speed at which much of the work is completed depends heavily on the methodical processes of the local governmental entities.
In a nutshell: The Mai-Kai is often at the mercy of the permitting approval process, which can drag on longer than expected. Even when permits are issued, they often require The Mai-Kai and/or the general contractor to wait for multiple approvals along the way to completion. For example, the re-thatching of the porte-cochère, which was ostensibly completed by the end of April, did not receive final approval from Oakland Park officials until June 15.
As of early July, there were five active permits covering four distinct areas of work. The permit for the work installing the new rooftop HVAC units expires on Aug. 8, which fits in with the timeline of having the new air-conditioning system up and running in July.
One over-arching permit covering the interior renovations, issued in March, runs until Sept. 12. This gives us some idea of the estimated timeline for the dining rooms and other inside guest areas to be finished for Phase 1. Keep in mind, however, that it’s not unusual for permits to be extended. A permit for work on the fire-suppression system, issued May 16, doesn’t expire until Nov. 13.
The two remaining approved permits cover the ongoing work in the back of house. One gives The Mai-Kai until Oct. 23 to compete the installation of a kitchen hood system. The newest permit as of this writing, issued June 28, covers the installation of 25 fire sprinkler heads in the kitchen. It doesn’t expire until Dec. 26, but the city denoted it as 60 percent completed in the approval process as of early July.
Unfortunately, two major permits remain “in review” and have not been approved despite applications being submitted on April 5 and May 3. These are the permits that may help determine the most accurate timeline for the Phase 1 reopening of the restaurant.
Both are wide-reaching “site improvement” permits that will signal the green light for the expansive exterior work that must be completed before The Mai-Kai reopens. This includes “landscaping, irrigation, hardscaping, and electrical” as well as “food services” and “outdoor bar.”
One of the permits is for “clearing, grubbing and site development,” which likely covers the initial work to tear out the existing pavement and prep the site for its reimagination. This includes moving and/or removing some trees, plus tearing down and rebuilding a higher rear wall across the back of the property.
The second permit is for “commercial building” and “commercial alteration/addition,” which should enable the final build-out of all the new features. Until the permits are approved, there is no way to know how long a period they will cover.
However, we know that this will not be an easy project. During one of our last visits in June, the on-site supervisor for the general contractor estimated that the driveway and parking lot project will take at least three months once it begins. Mark Cabana of JB Construction said that there’s a lot of work to do underground in addition to the landscaping and the new wall. Most of the trees will be preserved, he added.
“That will determine when we open,” manger Kern Mattei said of this final, complex piece of the renovation puzzle.
Complicating matters, we recently learned that the parking lot project also comes under the jurisdiction of Broward County since it involves roadways. And because The Mai-Kai is a local and national historic property, it also requires the approval of the state Department of Transportation.
We’ll share updates here and social media when those approvals are confirmed and work begins.
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