A journalist and Florida resident for more than 40 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and retro culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in newspaper journalism and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter have given him a front-row seat in the South Florida scene since the 1970s. He promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions banner since the early 1990s. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications in 1983, Jim was a longtime editor and web producer for The Palm Beach Post before his retirement in 2022. He earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position overseeing tropical weather coverage in his stormy home state. Jim now spends his time mixing cocktails, attending events and writing stories for this blog, which launched in 2011. The Atomic Grog extensively covers events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant.
The multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai reached a turning point this fall when multiple construction projects were underway, both inside and outside the historic property in South Florida. These key elements – the rebuilding of the back-of-house kitchen and bar, plus the reimagination of the parking lot – are the last major pieces of the puzzle that need to completed before a projected early 2024 reopening can become reality.
But despite all this hubbub, the artists who are bringing the design and decor of the vintage restaurant back to life remain focused on their many highly detailed tasks. Working in and around the construction zones is merely a day at the office for creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow craftsmen, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly and Conrad Teheiura Itchener. Meanwhile, manager Kern Mattei continues to handle the day-to-day operations with aplomb.
After a hot and grueling summer, everyone working inside the building got some welcome relief when the new air-conditioning system finally roared to life in the fall after being installed in July. Most of the building had been without AC since the roof collapse in October 2020 that triggered the closing and eventual sale of The Mai-Kai to the Barlington Group and a new ownership team that partnered with the founding Thornton family.
The rewiring of the 67-year-old building was an epic task for electricians. Power was out for months during the summer, awaiting Florida Power & Light crews scheduled to make the restaurant’s six new breaker boxes operational. Power was eventually restored in early October. Then, on Oct. 12, vents were blasting cold air into the vintage Molokai bar almost exactly three years after the closing. By early November, the showroom, Tonga Room and the gift shop were also being cooled as the electricians started bringing other parts of the building online.
The air wasn’t the only cool thing happening in the refurbished bar. While it could be considered merely symbolic, the return of the “Molokai Maiden” masthead to her perch was a highlight not only for fans but also for the craftsmen working endless hours on the restoration. The alluring mermaid has been a longtime icon, immortalized with a memorable mug in 2014 by artist Crazy Al Evans, produced by The Swank Pad.
* Video: Maiden of the Molokai mug by Crazy Al (2014)
Most of the bar’s decor was finished earlier this year, but reinstalling the mermaid was a pretty big deal for the crew. “It really feels like The Mai-Kai’s coming back now that she’s up there,” Itchener said. He was joined by Allsmiller and Scheidly for the task, which they documented with a video on Instagram:
The porte-cochère: Restoration meets reimagination
Racing against the clock to finish their work before construction crews arrived to excavate the driveway, Allsmiller and his team completed their work on the beams and vintage panels under the porte-cochère. When new LED lighting was installed and tested in October, the result was a sight not seen in decades.
Numerous hurricanes knocked out the accent lights, while the 65-year-old fiberglass panels and adjacent wooden rails over the front doors fell into disrepair over the years. The entire area was reimagined by Allsmiller and Scheidly. They were joined by Itchener, who helped turn the black metal support beams into faux bamboo.
When rum enthusiasts Robert and Robin Burr hosted their first tasting event in 2008 in South Florida, little did they know that 15 years later there would be a plethora of similar events worldwide, with more springing up every year. They had confidence in the often misunderstood spirit’s potential, however, dubbing their event the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival and growing it into one of the largest such gatherings, setting future trends for the industry.
* Jump below: Q&A with Robert Burr
If seems like there’s a rum festival every month of the year, that’s probably because there likely is. In just the next few weeks, fans of cane spirits will gather for the Miami festival, plus events in Barbados, St Barth, Denmark, and Australia. Next year’s calendar already includes more than a dozen events, from Puerto Rico to Paris. For that, we can thank the Burrs and other OG rum festivals, such as the massive UK RumFest (est. 2007), recently held in London.
* See the full rum events calendar below
This year will mark the 14th Miami Rum Renaissance for the Burrs, who are content to keep their event at a more manageable size with an intimate venue and boutique-style vibe. The rum tastings will be held for the fourth straight time at a historic building in the suburbs with a small schedule of educational seminars offered at a nearby hotel the day before.
The event offers a rare opportunity for hundreds of rum connoisseurs to meet and mingle in an intimate setting with producers, distillers, importers, distributors, retailers and other members of the spirits trade.
Seminars feature experts from Bacardi, Barbancourt, National Rums of Jamaica
If you’re interested in more than just tasting rum, Saturday’s schedule is for you. Learn about blending, rum history, modern innovations, and how sugar cane can influence the final product. The Miami Rum Festival will offer four 45-minute presentations, running from noon to 5:15 p.m. at the Marriott.
The pursuit of dangerous Zombies and other potent libations served in ominous mugs is a year-round pursuit for many of us. But the Halloween season is prime time for mixologists to conjure up creative new potions for the not-so-faint of heart.
To meet that challenge, we offer up a flight of three deadly drinks with a dark and foreboding flair. And, of course, more than a touch of Tiki.
• 1/4 ounce fresh orange juice
• 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
• 1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
• 1/2 ounce rich honey mix
• 3/4 ounces freshly brewed and chilled coffee
• 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum (Mai-Kai blend or substitute)
• 1 ounce gold (lightly aged) Spanish-style rum
• 1/2 ounces dark rum
• 1/4 ounce Mariano’s Mix #7
• 1/2 teaspoon allspice dram
• 1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
Pulse blend with 1 cup of crushed ice for 5 seconds. Strain into a chilled 6-ounce cocktail glass.
There’s a symphony of flavors packed into this small sipper. It’s rich and heavy on the spice and coffee, even more so than its big brother. Without the ice in the glass, it stays robust to the last drop. The bitters and allspice balance the sweet and sour notes, leaving the rums to form a solid but not overwhelming backbone.
While California may still be king of the hill with its abundance of classic and modern Tiki bars, constant events and confluence of Polynesian Pop’s movers and shakers, another sunny state on the opposite side of the country is quickly becoming a must-visit destination for more than its beaches and theme parks.
This weekend’s return of Tiki Fever in Sarasota reminds us of all the things that make Florida a hot spot for seekers of a vintage experience. The event takes place at a classic retro resort and the state’s oldest Tiki bar (Bahi Hut). It includes four days of revelry featuring top bands, presenters, vendors, and more. It’s a relatively new event, celebrating its third gathering Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 5-8.
But next year is when it really heats up. A promising new weekender, Tiki-a-Go-Go, will debut in April in Orlando. The state’s vanguard Tiki event, The Hukilau, will return to southeast Florida in June.
Early 2024 should also mark the return of perhaps the state’s No. 1 destination for fans of classic Tiki, the revered Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show. If that’s not enough, Florida is ground zero for the resurrection of the Don the Beachcomber restaurant brand. The Florida-based parent company plans to open as many as five new locations in the state between now and the end of next year.
Sure, we’re still home to the ubiquitous “Florida Man,” often oppressive humidity, and increasingly questionable politics. But for all the reasons above, and more outlined below, Florida deserves to become a must-visit destination for fans of classic Tiki as well as the modern revival.
Here’s a preview of the state’s three major weekenders, plus a roundup of other events of interest. (Florida-based artists, musicians and businesses are highlighted throughout the rest of this story with links.)
As summer came to a close, The Mai-Kai started the final phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation with a reimagination of the parking lot. The project will take at least three months, pushing the timeframe of the reopening into early 2024.
In preparation, the artists and craftsmen have shifted from inside to outside under the porte-cochère, where a flurry of work is being completed before the pavement is torn up to make way for a new outdoor bar, seating area and redirected driveway.
Most of the recent activity has been out front under the porte-cochère, where we recently found manager Kern Mattei with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow artists hard at work restoring artwork, finishing refurbished beams, and adding creative new touches to the historic thatched A-frame structure that serves as the entryway to the restaurant.
While not rushing the comprehensive restoration, Mattei said, the crew is making a concerted effort to get as much done as possible before the massive parking lot project kicks into full gear. “This is a big project out here,” Mattei said on Sept. 7, pointing out all the work. New lights were just installed that day.
Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly are making the most of this time, nearing the completion of restoring the lighted upper panels above the front doors. The stylized fiberglass pieces date back to the late 1950s, when the original Molokai bar replaced what was an outdoor waiting area. The entire facade was reconfigured and new entry doors added.
As the renovation of The Mai-Kai reaches a crucial point outdoors, work is progressing on the restoration of the historic South Florida restaurant’s guest areas alongside a near total rebuild of the back-of-house facilities.
It’s a two-pronged effort overseen by Kern Mattei, a second-generation employee who grew up at The Mai-Kai and is now in his 30th year as manager. An October 2020 roof collapse took out the massive kitchen and back bar. A change in ownership in September 2021 kick-started the renovation efforts, which now enter the final phases.
On the job since early 2022, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has brought both his passion for historic Polynesian design and his vast experiece as a theme park scenic artist to The Mai-Kai’s many restoration projects. For most of this year, he’s been joined by another central Florida artist, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, creating a well-oiled machine that can seemingly handle any task, no matter how challenging.
They were joined this summer by another multifaceted artist who has been crucial in helping them use inventive techniques to restore some of the areas most in need of TLC. Along with the woodworking crew tasked with repairing all of The Mai-Kai’s damaged walls and ceiling, Conrad Teheiura Itchener is a key member of the team bringing the Tiki temple back to life.
Meanwhile, the new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller of Barlington Group is pumping all of its resources into modernizing the infrastructure, from new roofs to a revamped electrical grid and air-handling system. Helping Mattei rebuild the kitchen and back-of-house is Fuller’s sister company, Mad Room Hospitality, which oversees other historic restaurants including Miami’s Ball & Chain.
Following is an extensive recap of all the work done inside The Mai-Kai since our last stories in early July. Meanwhile, a related story contains up-to-the minute news on the reimagination of the parking lot as well as a projected reopening date.
SAMOA ROOM: One of the original dining areas meticulously restored
Over the past six months, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly have methodically brought many of The Mai-Kai’s elaborately themed dining rooms back to life: New Guinea, Hawaii, Moorea, and the lower areas of Tonga. But the completion of the one of the oldest dining areas, Samoa, remained elusive.
The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog are headed to Tiki Oasis! We’re honored to be joined by manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller at the world’s original and largest Tiki weekender Aug. 2-6 in San Diego.
The 23rd annual event at the Town and Country Resort features live entertainment (Man or Astroman, The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Messer Chups, The New Les Baxter Orchestra, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, King Kukulele, Medusirena), seminars (Sven Kirsten, Charles Phoenix, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Ian Burrell), artists, vendors, and much more.
Tiki Oasis guests will enjoy five nights and four days of poolside lounging, fashion shows, room parties, live bands and DJs, a curated art exhibit, a gigantic Tiki marketplace, tropical cocktails curated by top mixologists, plus much more.
Click here for event tickets, ranging from $40 for Wednesday to $499 for a deluxe Wednesday-Sunday pass. If you have kids in tow, don’t fret. Tickets cost just $35 for ages 6 to 17. Children 5 under are free.
Click below for tickets to the seminars, which must be purchased separately.
For the first time in event history, South Florida’s historic Mai-Kai will be on hand for not one, but two official presentations. Last year, designer and artist Allsmiller taught a sold-out, two-day shelf-building class shortly after diving into his work restoring The Mai-Kai. This year, he’ll be featuring one of his restored vintage lamps from The Mai-Kai in a lamp show that runs all weekend.
On Friday, Hayward and Mattei will present a seminar on one of The Mai-Kai’s most iconic cocktails, the Derby Daiquiri. On Saturday, they will be joined by Allsmiller for a presentation jam-packed with the latest information on the restoration and reopening.
Here are are more details on the events:
The Derby Daiquiri and Beyond: How to Create Your Own Classic
Hosted by Kern Mattei and Jim “Hurricane” Hayward
2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, $45 [BUY TICKETS]
The Mai-Kai’s Derby Daiquiri was one of the most celebrated cocktails of the mid-century, a simple riff on the Cuban classic by master mixologist Mariano Licudine. Six decades later, it remains one of the most popular drinks on the historic restaurant’s menu. It also provides a case study on how a vintage recipe can be enhanced by just a few simple tweaks, creating something new and exciting. Join The Mai-Kai’s longtime manager, Kern Mattei, and cocktail blogger Jim “Hurricane” Hayward for an examination of Licudine’s genius as they guide you toward creating your own signature classic.
About Kern and Jim
Kern Mattei was born into The Mai-Kai family and has worked there since his youth, from barback and bartender to the past three decades as manager. His father was the GM before him, and his mother performed in the stage show. His unique position makes him intimately familiar with the restaurant’s famous cocktails, their history and the secret recipes. During the current refurbishment, he runs the takeout cocktail program, providing quarts and gallons of classics like the Barrel O’ Rum and Black Magic to thirsty locals. Blogger and journalist Jim “Hurricane” Hayward has covered The Mai-Kai for more than a decade, documenting and recreating the cocktail recipes in exacting detail. As we approach a late 2023 reopening, The Atomic Grog has become a key source of information on The Mai-Kai restoration project.
Seminar sneak preview
Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect during the first-ever official Mai-Kai cocktail seminar at Tiki Oasis:
Three different Daiquiris will be served by the Tiki Oasis cocktail crew, including the Derby, as we reveal and dissect each recipe.
Rare and never-before-seen images from the archives will be shown, including Mattei family photos.
We’ll take the most detailed look yet at the creation and explosive popularity of the Derby Daiquiri, known as “the $100,000 Drink.”
The seminar will conclude with the premiere of a new recipe created especially for Tiki Oasis and San Diego.
Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward with “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and Kern Mattei
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5, $20 [BUY TICKETS]
The Mai-Kai is a miraculous survivor. The South Florida historic landmark endured a near-catastrophic roof collapse in late 2020 but found new owners with deep pockets and an ambitious vision to preserve it for generations to come. When the restoration of the 66-year-old Polynesian palace is complete, it will be meticulously returned to its former glory and also include millions of dollars in enhancements that respect the past and charge boldly into the future. In this multimedia presentation, embedded journalist Jim “Hurricane” Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog will take you behind the scenes at The Mai-Kai. He’ll be joined by two key members of The Mai-Kai team: Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller will offer unique insights into the painstaking restoration efforts, while longtime manager Kern Mattei will provide up-to-the-minute news on the renovation project, along with his unique perspective on Mai-Kai history.
About The Mai-Kai team
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward is a veteran journalist and blogger, best known for The Atomic Grog blog – covering Tiki events, music, art cocktails and culture since 2011. Along with its popular Mai-Kai cocktail guide, the blog has become the go-to source of information on the landmark restaurant’s closing, sale, restoration, and reopening. Typhoon Tommy is a multiple Thea Award-winning scenic artist with 13 years of experience in the theme park industry. After turning his talents full-time to creating magical escapes in the world of Tiki, he became creative director and designer for The Mai-Kai renovation project in 2022. Kern Mattei grew up at the historic restaurant during its heyday and now leads the efforts to modernize the infrastructure while maintaining as much of its original beauty as possible. He has been general manager since 1993, following in the footsteps of his father, Kern Mattei Sr. (1964-1991).
Making this feat a reality is a team of artists and craftspeople under the direction of manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. This over-arching job is mammoth, encompassing the restoration of the Molokai bar, eight elaborately themed dining areas, plus other guest spaces.
In this update, we’ll catch up with the Orlando-area artists as they continue their mission to return The Mai-Kai to the same condition it was when the last major redesign was completed in the early 1970s. That’s when the last dining rooms were added and the building’s current footprint was solidified, some 15 years after its 1956 opening.
First, let’s walk through a chronological recap from May and June:
EARLY MAY: Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy refurbishing lamps in the Hawaii dining area, the 60-capacity room to the right of the showroom stage. “They touched almost all of them,” Mattei said. They also finished the ceiling in Hawaii, adding new panels.
They were assisted by longtime Mai-Kai handyman Gustavo in removing the window between Hawaii and Samoa, then adding new wood and lighting. The window was cleaned and put back in place, restoring this little-known feature to its vintage condition:
They also started on the adjacent Moorea dining area, a 40-capacity room that’s slightly elevated to offer the most distant views of the Polynesian Islander Revue to the north beyond Hawaii. The opposite southern glass wall, featuring rare yellow Chinese jade tiles, offers views of the outdoor garden. The crew immediately targeted the woodwork, matting and lamps for repair.
The lamp-builders also pivoted back to the Tonga Room, the elevated 80-capacity space in the back of the showroom. They had made great progress there in previous months, but the huge space still had many lamps that needed work.
Below at left is a restored tapa in The Mai-Kai’s Hawaii Room. A vintage turtle shell lamp will be returned to the center (note the electrical outlet). At right are some of the many restored lamps in the Tonga Room.
MID-MAY: Work wrapped up in the Hawaii dining room as Allsmiller and Scheidly put finishing touches on the lamps, walls and ceiling. “Once the turtle shells go back on the walls, it’s going to be beautiful in here,” Allsmiller said.
In their workspace in the main showroom, the lamp brigade finished all of the low-hanging lamps in the Tonga dining area, many created 50 years ago by the venerable Oceanic Arts. Those high in the A-frame will be touched later. Traditionally one of the darkest parts of restaurant, this area looks much brighter with all the lamps refurbished and featuring modern LED lighting.
In the left photo below, Allsmiller shows off a lamp project on May 18. At right, he points out work being done to restore an old framed tapa in the hallway near the Tonga Room and entrance to the kitchen. After the colors are touched up and it’s covered in Mod Podge, you won’t even notice, he said. “We’re trying to save them, bring them back.”
Back in Moorea, Allsmiller explained how they’re trying to restore the walls even though some of the materials are no longer available. He said they’re using materials salvaged from elsewhere, then changing the design slightly so chair backs will no longer damage the matting. “We’re saving material and reusing it,” he said.
He said the typical plan of attack for each room is to work on the walls first and save the lamps for last, or whenever they’re waiting for materials. On May 18, I found them in the nerve center – the main showroom workspace – buried in new lamp projects.
Both Scheidly and Allsmiller were working on total rebuilds of old lamps from the Tonga Room, found broken and in bad shape (see photo below). “I like the challenge,” Allsmiller said of not having the blueprints. He said he can make an educated guess of what the lamps should look like. Schematics for some of the Oceanic Arts lamps were found in The Mai-Kai warehouse, but many others are mysteries.
Work was also progressing into Samoa, a secluded dining area that seats 44 in one of the oldest rooms at The Mai-Kai. The “demolition crew” had been busy tearing out all the old, damaged wall materials. This is a big help to the designers, allowing them to concentrate on restoration. Work was also advancing on the refurbishing of the ceiling and beams.
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.
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.
Enthusiasts from around the world joined Tiki and bar industry experts for four days of music, symposiums, cocktails, a Tiki marketplace and more. The East Coast’s longest running Polynesian Pop event was bookended by pre- and post-event parties and gatherings. RELATED:The Atomic Grog’s highlights, photos and memories
The Hukilau 2023 – June 8-11 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, The Swingin’ Palms, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Dan Cunningham, The Ohana Hawaiian Jazz Trio), symposiums and classes (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, David Wondrich, Matt Pietrek, Garret Richard, Spike Marble, Tiki Tom-Tom, Doc Parks), guest bars and industry professionals, pop-up cocktail bars, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
* TheHukilau.com | Instagram | Facebook page and group