A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 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 reto 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 journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
There was much rejoicing after the announcement in September 2021 that after being closed for nearly a year, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale would reopen in 2022 under a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into an extensive refurbishment and renovations. A devastating roof collapse in the kitchen in October 2020 had shut down indoor service indefinitely. Click here for our full story on the announcement and the ownership transition.
Now, as we move forward in 2022, fans and supporters are eager to learn details on the plans and progress. While we follow The Mai-Kai’s social media pages for updates, we’ll keep a running list of news on this page for easy reference. Please bookmark and check back for the latest info on the refurbishment of the historic Polynesian restaurant.
This is the first time we’ve seen a reference to specific time periods in comments about the refurbishment. It also reaffirms speculation that The Molokai lounge, which is located in the front of the building away from the damaged kitchen, would reopen before the remainder of the restaurant.
NEW: Check out The Atomic Grog’s annual calendar for all the major events across the world of Tiki culture. The Tiki Times also includes rum events, plus modernism, surf and rockabilly music, Disney and other happenings of interest to the Tiki community. It will be continually updated throughout the year, so check the link below for main calendar page frequently: UPDATES: FULL 2022 EVENTS CALENDAR
Although at times 2021 seemed like 2020 all over again, we made some great strides toward a return to normalcy amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Many live events returned, albeit in abbreviated or scaled-down formats. Regular virtual and online events continued, giving many a safe way to interact. The Tiki Times, The Atomic Grog’s ongoing event guide, documented many of these happenings over the past year. Check below for artwork and links to official sites, plus images and videos from social media. Stay safe and remember to follow all COVID guidance as we face further challenges in 2022. THE WEEK IN TIKI 2022: Latest upcoming live and virtual events Support Tiki bars:Visit their online stores, buy the latest merchandise Social media:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
If you’re in a cold climate, you can curl up in front of the fire with a warm and comforting mug of holiday cheer. If you’re fortunate enough (like us) to hail from closer to the Equator, there are plenty of cool and refreshing concoctions to scratch your tropical itch. Hell, why not enjoy all of the options no matter where you live?
As this season’s wildly popular pop-up bars – most notably Miracle and Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Santa – continue to prove, there’s no shortage of demand for creative and well-themed Christmas cocktails. Beyond the big dogs, there are also one-off themed overlays in bars across the globe that are also worth checking out.
We make no claim to the expertise of those fantastic folks in the trenches, but it’s always fun to experiment with holiday flavors like a spoiled kid in a toy store. Joining The Atomic Grog’s pantheon of winter cocktails are three new creations, including our first seasonal Zombie ….
This time of year is not all snowmen and mistletoe. There are some elements of the season that make us feel like the walking dead. What better way to deal with the holiday hubris than a nice, stiff Zombie …
CHRISTMAS CREEPER (By Hurricane Hayward, The Atomic Grog)
Pulse blend with 1 1/2 cups of crushed ice for 6-9 seconds. Pour into a Zombie glass, adding more ice to fill. Garnish with mint and swizzle stick.
This looks like a Zombie and tastes like a Zombie, but it’s also full of sweet and tart holiday cheer. The potent rums and lime-cranberry combo hit you hard, but the spice and anise notes creep up on you. As will the alcohol content, so consume with caution or risk becoming a holiday party story your relatives will retell with relish.
Ingredient, mixing tips
* The cranberry and pomegranate, combined with the fresh lime, provide an enveloping underlying tartness that serves as a great base for the bold rums, anise and unique punch of the kirsch. We recommend a high-quality (or homemade) grenadine and natural cranberry juice. We didn’t try this, but it might also be worth swapping the grenadine for a cranberry simple syrup.
* Brown sugar syrup is easy to make by heating 1 part dark brown sugar with 1 part water on the stove until it starts to boil, then cooling in the fridge. We also make our own ginger and cinnamon syrups, and there are quite a few recipes available online. But if you’re not adventurous, we also recommend the bottled options, from B.G. Reynolds and Real Syrups.
* Kirschwasser, aka kirsch, is a colorless brandy that originated in Germany and is made from fermented cherries. It’s usually bottled at 80 to 90 proof and has a distinctive bitter cherry flavor that works well in a Zombie. It’s traditionally drunken neat as a digestif, but you can also find it in cocktails. It can also be used in festive holiday cakes, candies and the flaming cherries jubilee dessert. It’s relatively easy to find in liquor stores and worth seeking out for this distinctive cocktail. It works well with the rums and the traditional cocktail spices, absinthe and allspice. For the latter, we chose the subtle touch of a bitters (such as Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters) but a very small dash of pimento dram would work as well.
The 12th annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival may not have reached the epic proportions of past events, but it was a welcome return as we tiptoe into a post-pandemic world. Like an old friend who had only one day for a visit, the short-but-sweet tasting session on Nov. 14 brought the extended “rum family” back together in a safe space.
“Our decision to keep it simple paid off,” co-organizer Robert A. Burr said after the event. “We sold out with 500 tickets and the size of the crowd was very comfortable. It’s so satisfying to gather with our rum friends again.” Burr and wife Robin also welcomed back son Robert V. Burr to the rum fest. His move back to South Florida will enable him to once again be involved in the event, he told us during the festivities.
While socially distant interactions are still awkward, it was clear that both attendees and participating rum brands were very happy to be there. The elder Burr said many “expressed their heartfelt appreciation.”
Hosted for a second time at the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club, the event was not spread out over multiple days like years past. The Rum Renaissance Tasting Event featured no seminars or judging sessions, but the Burrs definitely didn’t skimp on the rums. There appeared to be even more tasting booths than there were in 2019.
The tasting session for the general public ran from 2 to 6 p.m., and we spent the better part of that time catching up with old friends and sampling many fine rums. We immediately knew we were in for a treat when we entered the first of two event halls to find an elaborate Rhum Barbancourt booth manned by master mixologist Tobin Ellis. The legendary rum from Haiti was making a rare appearance in Miami with Ellis, an influential bartender and consultant from Las Vegas who made a splash at the rum fest in its early days.
I had not seen Ellis since we faced off in 2011 at the third annual Miami Rum Renaissance Festival’s Zombie Jamboree at The Mai-Kai. He won that mixology contest, of course, and I remember him offering this newbie some great advice. It was fantastic to catch up with one of the bar and cocktail world’s most creative minds. It was also comforting to find out that he remains a very humble and down-to-earth guy.
Some other no-less-notable names were in the house, representing dozens of rum brands from around the world. With my time limited, I made an attempt to sample as many new and intriguing rums as possible. It was definitely tough to restrain myself from revisiting the many past favorites, including Diplomatico, Dos Maderas, El Dorado, Pusser’s, and others. Check out our past coverage for all of these, plus more.
Here are seven memories we walked away with from this year’s rum reunion in Coral Gables …
QUICK TAKES: 2021 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival highlights
BEST BOOTH: Rhum Barbancourt. The sophisticated kiosk from Haiti’s flagship brand had everything you’d want from a rum festival presenter: Classy and eye-catching displays plus a perfect photo-op spot, the full range of distinctive rums readily available for tasting, and a world-class mixologist shaking up fresh (and delicious) cocktails. It was almost unfair to the rest of the brands. Of course, we’re intimately familiar with the full Barbancourt range from its years as a sponsor of The Hukilau. And we’ve always kept our home bar stocked with the three 86-proof core products – the lightly aged Rhum Blanc, the 4-year-old “3 Stars,” and the 8-year-old Speciale Reserve “5 Stars” – along with the 70-proof Barbancourt Pango, one of the best flavored rums on the market. You’ll find several Barbancourt rums featured in our new Haitian Zombie recipe. But the brand’s crown jewel is the premium sipping rum, the 15-year-old Estate Reserve blend. Like the others, it’s distilled from sugar cane juice in the rhum agricole style and aged in French oak. We were reminded just how good this rum is after tasting the complex, nuanced and very refined sip. Rhum Barbancourt remains one of the most consistent (and reasonably priced) brands on the market.
BEST NEW RUM: Plantation Trinidad 2009. I almost skipped the booth from longtime festival participant Plantation – the popular rum brand from France’s Maison Ferrand. I own or have tasted most of the booth’s award-winning bottlings, which are sourced from islands across the world before a second aging and bottling in France. But I spotted a new one, and I’m glad I stopped to try it. Plantation Trinidad 2009 is a limited-edition blend that was aged for 11 years in ex-bourbon casks in Trinidad before aging for a year in oak barrels in France. Plantation has perfected this somewhat controversial production style, and it serves this release well. Clocking in a 103.6 proof, this is a dynamic yet delicate blend with light citrus and spice notes along with hints of gasoline (in a good way). The latter was something I don’t recall ever encountering in a modern Trinidadian rum (Angostura is now the island’s sole rum producer). It’s an intriguing release, one I definitely recommend. Just for the heck of it, I compared it head-to-head against a similar rum from the festival’s VIP Tasting Bar: the acclaimed Velier Caroni 15. This is a 15-year-old, 104-proof rum from the Caroni Distillery in Trinidad, which unfortunately closed in 2003 after a long history that included many years of supplying its rich, dark rums to the British Navy. This bottling from Italy’s Velier is outstanding, a rich and powerful rum with lots of dark fruit flavors and an oily, gasoline-like punch. One of my favorites from the tasting bar. The similarities in the two rums was clear, particularly the smoky petrol. To me, the Plantation Trinidad 2009 release comes off as a lighter, more approachable version of the Caroni 15. (Note: There’s also a 12-year-old Caroni from Velier that I have not tried.). The ABV is almost identical, and the same unique gasoline notes stand out. When Caroni closed, the majority of its remaining rum was acquired by Angostura, so it’s entirely possible some Caroni stock is used in this blend. All the Plantation website says is the rum “was chosen from the cellars of Trinidad Distillers” (which owns Angostura). There has been speculation that Angostura uses some of its Caroni stock in the “1787” expression, its top-of-the-line rum blend that’s aged for a minimum of 15 years but released at just 80 proof. It’s possible there’s also a tiny bit of Caroni in this new blend from Plantation as well.
After 18 months of tasting rum in the privacy of our home bars, it’s about time that South Florida offers a small gathering where enthusiasts can sample dozens of new and long-standing products. Luckily for us, the Miami Rum Festival makes its return this weekend for its first event since May 2019.
Billed as the 2021 “Rum Renaissance Tasting Event,” it’s limited to one four-hour general session on Sunday at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club, but that’s more than enough reason to celebrate the safe return of one of the rum world’s longest-running festivals.
Established in 2009, the Miami fest pre-dates the recent fascination among fans of craft spirits and the expansion of premium rum brands and events around the world. It presciently anticipated rum’s renaissance in the past decade and offered both enthusiasts and industry VIPs a high-quality gathering place every year, without fail.
The coronavirus pandemic put all that on hold in 2020, but founders Robert and Robin Burr are ready to welcome back their rum family for a scaled-down, one-day event that will continue to celebrate the ongoing renaissance. The general public is welcome from 2 to 6 p.m. Doors open for industry and trade at 12:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 14 – Miami Rum Renaissance Festival at the Coral Gables Woman’s Club, 1001 East Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables. Tickets $39 to $49 per person. Limited free parking. For safety reasons, attendance is limited. Tickets may sell out in advance, so be sure to get them now or by phone at 305-350-0764. PURCHASE TICKETS ONLINE
The festival includes unlimited small samples of more than 150 products from dozens of brands, from Antelope Island to Zacapa. Participants include such well-known labels as Cockspur (Barbados), El Dorado (Guyana), Plantation (Caribbean and elsewhere), Rhum Barbancourt (Haiti), Ron Diplomatico (Venezuela), Saint James (Martinique), and Tanduay (Philippines).
But you’ll also spot up-and-coming products from craft distillers including Copalli (Belize) and Prichard’s (Tennessee), along with many other small brands. It’s a chance to taste many new releases just coming to market, along with older expressions that are often hard to find.
Hundreds of connoisseurs, collectors, judges and rum lovers are expected to flock to the historic venue, which first hosted the event in 2019. They’ll have the rare chance to mingle with a room full of rum producers, master distillers, importers, distributors, retailers and other members of the spirits trade. All attendees also receive a free tasting glass.
“We’re excited that Miami Rum Fest is celebrating its 12th anniversary of bringing the world of rum to South Florida,” organizer Robert Burr said in an announcement on his longtime resource, Rob’s Rum Guide. “We’ve been visiting rum producers to gather an incredible collection of fine rums to sample for this grand tasting event. It’s an opportunity for rum enthusiasts to enjoy their favorites and discover some delightful new expressions, gain a greater appreciation and share the enthusiasm of these fine spirits with friends.”
Beyond all the booths hosted by visiting rum brands, another highlight of the event is the VIP Tasting Bar, a selection of rare, collectable, and limited-edition rums from the Burrs’ own private stash. There’s an extra fee to sample these hard-to-find and expensive rums, but proceeds benefits a local non-profit organization. If you’ve seen the Burrs’ home collection in their Rum Wreck Dive Bar, you’ll know they have a wide assortment of spirits to choose from.
The venue is a charming historic building that dates back to 1935. With wood flooring and rustic touches, it’s unlike most modern event spaces. The surrounding downtown Coral Gables district features a half-dozen hotels within a short distance of the festival. There are also many restaurants, bars and entertainment venues in the area for mingling after the event.
2019 PHOTOS AND RECAP: Smaller Miami Rum Festival offers quality, not quantity
Downsized to a smaller but classier venue after six years at massive convention centers, the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival fit into its new environment like a classic cocktail in vintage glassware. Instead of an over-the-top Tiki drink, guests were treated to a rum Old Fashioned. But the end result was ultimately just as satisfying.
While “less is more” could be a cliché, it seems to work fine in the context of a rum-tasting festival. After all, how many rum samples can you really drink in one or two days? As long as the exhibitors and brands provide top-notch products, including a nice mix of new and classic offerings, attendees should find the festival fulfilling. This was certainly the case at Rum Renaissance Festival, circa 2019. 2019 event preview:Miami Rum Renaissance Festival returns to its roots after 10 years
The Burrs held their first rum-tasting event in 2008 at the historic Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. The return to the Miami suburb in 2019 brought the festival full-circle after a decade in large event spaces across South Florida.
The Coral Gables Woman’s Club may seem like an unlikely site for a rum fest, but it worked out nicely. The crowds taxed the air-conditioning system in the 100-year-old building during the peak afternoon hours and sweltering heat of mid-May, but that’s an issue that can easily be rectified. The charm of the building, which was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1990, outweighs its faults.
As for the event itself, our afternoon visit was marked by a deep dive into an array of spirits, a reunion with old friends and a general feel of an easy-going industry gathering. Sadly, it was our last time seeing the beloved Plantation Rum ambassador, Rocky Yeh, who passed away Dec. 1, 2019, at age 42. He left a huge mark on the industry during his short but vibrant life and will always be remembered.
While it’s technically not a rum, I was thrilled to pick up a bottle of Kronan Swedish Punsch. I had seen mentions of this classic rum liqueur in cocktail books for years, and it was great to finally have one in my arsenal. Another flavored rum product, Rum Java, wowed us with its distinctive flavors. Distilled from Florida sugarcane, it was the best of several coffee rums we sampled – definitely one of the top trends of the festival.
Lemon Hart & Sons made a rare festival appearance, touting its new Blackpool Spiced Rum and the long-awaited U.S. market return of Lemon Hart 1804, the classic Demerara rum from Guyana. Ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis also mixed up some of the tastiest cocktails of the day.
Until cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed the mystery behind Don the Beachcomber’s classic Zombie cocktail, the true recipe lay buried for more than 70 years. Berry’s discovery and publication of his findings in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari (2007) spurred a revival and greater appreciation of the deadly drink that continues to this day.
Simultaneously and coincidentally, the world of cinema also went zombie crazy, ushering in a renaissance of the modern horror archetype. Of the 30 films on a recently published list of “The best zombie movies of all time,” half were released in the 21st century.
With the precision of a pathologist, Berry dissected and definitively revealed the template that the bootlegger turned Tiki cocktail pioneer used to create what was arguably the most popular drink of the post-Prohibition era. The original 1934 recipe is a groundbreaking masterpiece, combining multiple rums and spices with sweet and sour juices and syrups, bitters, and even a touch of anise. Stay tuned for the upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film (The Donn of Tiki) for the full story of his life and times.
But what inspired the name of the cocktail? We can only assume it was White Zombie, released just a year or two before the drink and considered to be the first zombie film. Starring monster movie legend Béla Lugosi, it’s a far cry from today’s gore fests featuring flesh-eating corpses. The movie is actually fairly faithful to the true folklore, spinning the tale of a Haitian voodoo priest who drugs his victims and turns them into zombie slaves.
In the ensuring years, that origin story has been widely ignored by pop culture. The movie genre traces its modern roots to director George Romero and his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Nearly every movie or TV series since has loosely followed Romero’s template of reanimated corpses mindlessly running amok for no apparent reason, with political and social statements thrown in for good measure.
Back in the 1930s, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach) simply borrowed the name and made no attempt at connecting it to its island of origin. But what if we go back to the roots of the true zombie legend and use it as inspiration for not one, but two new Zombie cocktails?
BACKGROUND: Haitian zombie folklore rooted in slavery, French colonialism
The true story behind zombie folklore is scarier and more tragic than a movie.
Like its sister islands, what is now Haiti was invaded and colonized by a European power. France established Saint-Domingue in 1664, growing it into the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean on the backs of African slaves.
The brutal practice came to a violent end in 1791, when slaves staged a mass revolt and rose up against their oppressors. By 1794, the French government abolished slavery throughout its empire, more than 70 years before the 13th Amendment ended the practice in the United States.
The revolt sparked the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804 with the island’s independence and heroic ex-slave Toussaint Louverture installed as Haiti’s first governor general. It was a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World, distinctive as the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state that was both free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former captives.
The legend of the zombie, or “zonbi” as it was known in Haitian Creole culture, could be considered a metaphor for the horrors of slavery.
The word itself and the concept of zombie-like creatures can be traced back to African origins. Some research has also found a connection to the island’s indigenous Taíno people, known for their shamanist practices. The African slaves brought with them traditions and from their homeland, including the “Vodou” religion.
Haitian Vodou developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, merging traditional religions of west and central Africa with Roman Catholicism. In Haitian culture, a zonbi is a dead body brought back to life by a Vodou sorcerer known as a “bokor.” According to legend, the zonbi is under the total control of the bokor as a personal slave and lacks any will of its own. It’s part of a complex, spiritual belief (“soul dualism”) that a person has two or more kinds of souls.
One soul (“body soul”) is associated with body functions while the other (“free soul” or “wandering soul”) can leave the body. In the belief system of the enslaved Africans brought to Haiti, the afterlife included a return to their homeland, where both souls were reunited. However, if they had offended their voodoo deity, they would remain a zonbi and be a slave for eternity.
The fear of “zombification” was used by slave drivers to discourage slaves from committing suicide. These men who directed the daily work were often slaves themselves and sometimes also practicing voodoo priests, according to scholars. After the revolution, the zonbi became part of Haitian folklore, a stirring reminder of the past in the hope that it never happens again.
The earliest references to zombies in the United States, cited throughout the 1800s, were also closely associated with slavery and connected to African traditions. But the phenomenon went mainstream during the United States’ military occupation of Haiti (1915–1934).
Travel writer William Seabrook’s book, The Magic Island (1929), revealed “voodoo cults” in Haiti and likely inspired the 1932 film White Zombie. Though it takes place in Haiti, the film twists the legend to appeal to its American audience. I Walked With A Zombie, a 1943 horror movie set in a fictional Caribbean island, further strays from the original legend. By 1968 and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the horror film was cloaked in social commentary and civil rights, leaving Haiti’s zonbi myth to the history books.
The Haitian zombie made a brief comeback in 1985, when anthropologist Wade Davis published his controversial findings in the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which recounted his experiences investigating Vodou cults in Haiti. It was criticized for scientific inaccuracies in regards to its theories about psychoactive drugs, but it was a commercial success and inspired the 1988 horror film of the same name (starring Bill Pullman).
But just when you thought the legend was dead and buried, a more socially aware mindset has sparked new interest.
The Halloween season is usually a special time at The Mai-Kai. The 62-year-old Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale has seen its fair share of wild and crazy parties over the years, but not many can come close to the annual Hulaween bash.
Following flooding and roof damage right before Hulaween 2020, last year’s party moved to the parking lot for the first Hulaween Drive-In Movie. The historic Tiki temple remains closed for renovations, and there will sadly be now Hulaween in 2021 after 12 straight years of hijinks.
Despite this apparent doom and gloom, spirits are high among the staff and longtime fans of the family-run operation after last month’s announcement of a new partnership that will not only pave the way for the reopening, but also pump money and energy into making The Mai-Kai better than ever.
Another parking lot party is just not in the cards this year, but we eagerly await the day in 2022 when those doors will swing open and we’ll be back in The Molokai bar for happy hour, followed by dinner and the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
It won’t be long after that before we’re ready for the lucky 13th Hulaween, featuring crazy costumes, live music, and those delicious Mai-Kai cocktails. In the meantime, here’s a look back at the past 12 years of Hulaween madness in The Molokai. Click on the links for full coverage and photos.
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.”
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.
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.
Among the most loyal followers of The Mai-Kai are the thousands of guests who flock to Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau, an annual celebration of Polynesian Pop culture that established a foothold in the historic restaurant in 2003 and remains inextricably linked.
The recent announcement of The Mai-Kai’s planned refurbishment and reopening sent joyous shockwaves throughout the Tiki community, but especially among The Hukilau’s longtime “villagers,” as they’re known. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, but we were able to get a taste of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau in September 2021 during a special event in the porte-cochère. It was comforting to sip authentic cocktails and enjoy the musicians performing outside the front entrance, but many still longed to be inside.
When it was announced during the event that a deal had been struck and The Mai-Kai would be reopening, it made the experience even sweeter. Full details were released the following week (see story below), and the rest is history.
While the timeline is not clear on a reopening date, hopes are running high that the 20th anniversary of The Hukilau in 2022 will indeed include at least a partial return to indoor activities. The synergy is guaranteed to continue with the news that one of the investors in the new ownership team is The Hukilau’s head honcho, Richard Oneslager.
Beyond taking in all the activities – from the dinner show featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue to live bands in The Molokai bar – a ritual for many villagers during The Hukilau includes walking the sacred grounds and taking photos of their beloved Mai-Kai.
Below you’ll find a collection of those photos, shared with The Atomic Grog over the years. Many are appearing on the blog for the first time. Let’s enjoy the eye candy and look forward to once again returning in person for the grand reopening.