In the entertainment and hospitality industry, your biggest fans can also be your toughest critics. So when the new owner of South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai sat down with more than 100 Tiki enthusiasts during The Hukilau on June 11 for an open discussion of his plans to renovate the 65-year-old landmark, their reaction was crucial.
Judging by the many rousing ovations throughout the 50-minute presentation, veteran real estate developer and historic preservationist Bill Fuller passed the test with flying colors. The only murmurs of dissent came when the organizer of The Hukilau, Richard Oneslager, jokingly asked if it was true Fuller planned to replace the restaurant’s signature Chinese ovens with microwaves, and if The Molokai bar was being re-themed to Miami Vice.
Looming thunderstorms put a kibosh on the multimedia presentation planned for the open-air beachside gathering at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach. But Fuller’s words were more than enough to win over the crowd who came from around the world to the 19th Tiki weekender that traditionally culminates with a climactic evening at The Mai-Kai.
Fuller elaborated on those plans during his talk at The Hukilau, divulging some new details. He was joined by two members of The Mai-Kai family, Kulani Thornton Gelardi and Kern Mattei, who also revealed some interesting new projects in the works.
After a spirited intro by event emcee King Kululele, Oneslager sat down with Fuller and led a question-and-answer session under the large thatched hut between the pool and beach at the quaint boutique hotel. The burning questions on everyone’s mind, Oneslager said to Fuller, were: “What’s going to stay? What’s going to change? And are you going to screw things up?”
Fuller said he was “lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to join forces with the family” in September 2021. The reason The Mai-Kai is being preserved is mainly due to the will of the Thornton family, he said. Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, inherited the ownership mantle from her late husband, Robert Thornton, in 1989.
The 85-year-old family matriarch will continue to choreograph and produce the restaurant’s authentic Polynesian show, which she joined as a dancer from Tahiti in the early 1960s. “She has her own nuances, which is what makes special experiences like this tick,” Fuller said. “You can’t just replicate it, you need to have that body of knowledge, that creativity and heritage. That’s what’s so rich within the walls of The Mai-Kai.”
The first question for Fuller from the audience echoed a common refrain on social media: Exactly when can we expect to be back within those walls?
The Hukilau was back on the beach for 2022, hosting its many retro-themed Tiki festivities at a scenic hotel just north of Fort Lauderdale. The 19th Polynesian Pop weekender (the second longest-running in the world), featured four days of live music, educational seminars, cocktails and rum tastings, plus lots more. Click below for extensive photo/video recaps on social media. Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday
The Beachcomber, a family-owned property in Pompano Beach, features lots of outdoor space just steps from the Atlantic Ocean. The Mai-Kai, the longtime host restaurant that remains closed for refurbishment, participated by serving cocktails and offering villagers drinks to go. The new ownership team also presented an exclusive symposium on the exciting new plans for the historic property.
The Hukilau 2022 – June 9-12 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras, King Kukulele, Skinny Jimmy Stingray), symposiums (Ian Burrell, David Wondrich, The Mai-Kai, Rocket Betty, Spike Marble, Headhunter Ray, Jeff Ballard), 15 guest bars, rum tastings, luau on the beach, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more. Official website | Instagram | Facebook page and group
The first weekend in June brought a blast of stormy weather to South Florida, but the second weekend promises an entirely different – and much more festive – tropical disturbance. The Hukilau will innundate the Fort Lauderdale area beachfront with four days of rum-soaked activities, rockin’ surf bands and special guests from across the worldwide Tiki revival.
The 19th Polynesian Pop celebration is scheduled for Wednesday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Highlights include Friday’s luau on the beach and Saturday’s giant Tiki marketplace. Pool parties will feature music by top underground bands (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras) and cocktails served up by 16 Tiki bar teams from near and far.
By Thursday, the hurricane season’s first potential tropical system will be long gone. Weekend forecasts call for rain chances around 30 to 40 percent with high temperatures near 90, a typical early summer weekend in balmy South Florida.
Most of The Hukilau’s events and social gatherings take place poolside and under shaded thatched huts at the beachside resort. Organizers are prepared in case of bad weather with back-up plans to move some events indoors, but coverings in the outdoor areas can shield guests during typical rainy days.
The event is not yet sold out, so check the tickets page at TheHukilau.com for pass availability. The best bet for locals and late arrivals is the one-day Palm Pass ($129), which includes Saturday’s Rum Island Pool Party and Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus the evening bungalow parties. Online sales will continue to be available, but walk-ups will also be accommodated on Saturday.
Other options include the multi-day Aloha (Friday-Saturday) and South Seas (Thursday-Saturday) passes. Many symposiums and special events are included in the price of the top-tier passes. All guests receive complimentary craft cocktails from some of the world’s best bartenders as well as tastings of sponsor rums.
If you’re still looking for a room, it’s worth checking the Beachcomber first. The resort is close to selling out, but a few rooms are often held back for last-minute release. There’s also the possibility of cancellations at any time. Call (954) 941-7830 for reservations, and be aware that you’ll need to show proof of an event pass at check-in.
Don’t fret if all of the 150-odd rooms at the Beachcomber are taken, however. The beachfront along scenic State Road A1A is loaded with options, including many small boutique hotels and motels. The official alternate hotel is the Ocean Beach Resort & Suites, a half-mile to the north. Call (954) 942-2030 and mention The Hukilau for a special rate.
The move last year to the Beachcomber was party due to necessity because of the pandemic. It provided much outdoor space, along with a smaller room count as well as fewer expenses. Past host hotels have included massive properties such as the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, which closed for a multi-year refurbishment immediately after The Hukilau 2019.
But the change did not come without some sense of serendipity. The Hukilau, after all, is named for an oceanside gathering of family and friends for a giant fishing festival.
“This is what The Hukilau is meant to be,” organizer Richard Oneslager said in a recent interview. “We’re on the ocean, doing business with a family-run property.”
The entire hotel is reserved for The Hukilau, which both limits its size and makes for a more immersive event. It’s a “complete escape to a Tiki paradise,” Oneslager said, referring to the experience as “our own little world.” Because there are no outsiders, “everyone around you is part of the show,” he said. Very few events can offer that complete package.
Oneslager said there are no plans to grow more than a modest 5 or 10 percent. He said he likes the current configuration, which gives villagers the opportunity to meet new friends, but still have an intimate experience. Previous story: More on the hotel and event history
“Having the whole property to ourselves is a big thing,” he said. While he won’t give an exact number, Oneslager said the total number of passes sold this year will be less than 750. That aligns The Hukilau more with the many medium-sized multi-day events rather than the giant Tiki Oasis in San Diego. The Tiki Times:The Atomic Grog’s exclusive events guide
In addition to all the major highlights on the schedule and noted below, Oneslager continues to add fun, last-minute features. He mentioned the return of Tiki miniature golf as well as a series of outdoor “Ohana-Rama” games that you can play at your leisure or join a competition. There will also be a Tiki bingo event Saturday to benefit the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s educational foundation.
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.
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.”
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 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.
Now, as we move toward the end of 2022 and work progresses, fans and supporters are eager to learn details. The Atomic Grog will keep you updated with the latest info on the refurbishment of the historic Polynesian restaurant. Bookmark this page and check back often.
NOV. 15 – The Mai-Kai announces potential reopening in spring 2023
Delays both expected and unexpected have pushed back the target reopening timeframe to the spring of 2023, according to an official announcement that went out to The Mai-Kai’s email list.
Here’s the full text of the announcement, titled “An official update from the Mai-Kai Team” …
First of all, we would like to thank all of our loyal Mai-Kai customers and fans for their unending support and most of all patience while we continue our restoration and repairs.
We are working very hard behind the scenes to bring The Mai-Kai back and better than ever. As we continue our updates which include interior décor renovations and repairs as well as new construction in heavily damaged areas, we are running into expected and some unexpected delays.
We are now looking at a potential reopening in the Spring of 2023.
We are very thankful for all of the outreach and support that we have been receiving from all of you and look forward to welcoming you back as soon as we can.
Check back for more detailed updates on the renovations.
NOV. 7 – Interior renovations shed light on The Mai-Kai’s historic lamp designs
As sometimes happens in multimillion-dollar construction projects as large in size and scope as The Mai-Kai, there are inevitable delays beyond anyone’s control. Most of the current wait involves city permits for multiple jobs, which are complicated by the restaurant’s local and national historic status. Something as simple as installing thatch needs to be executed with historic standards in mind.
But there is a silver lining amid all the red tape: Additional time becomes an asset to the managers and craftspeople working on restoring the interior decor in The Mai-Kai’s many elaborately detailed dining rooms. Manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller both have their hands full with multiple projects inside the building that they continue to work on during the slowdowns on the larger projects outside.
Mattei is coordinating the ongoing development of new glassware and Tiki mugs, plus T-shirt and Aloha shirt designs for both staff and customers. He was also happy to confirm recently that a deal was signed with noted artist Mcbiff to create signature artwork and merchandise for The Mai-Kai (teased in our Sept. 19 update below).
One of the most fascinating jobs on Mattei’s plate is the refurbishment of one of The Mai-Kai’s coolest hidden gems: The nearly 200 distinctive table lamps that cast a warm and exotic glow throughout the restaurant.
To the uninitiated, these small lamps themed to the Polynesian islands are most notable for the thousands of signatures and remembrances scrawled upon the shades by guests over the past several decades. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a lot more than meets the eye.
We got to check out that same prototype shade recently in the back office, where Mattei gave us the lowdown on the project. Gone are the shades covered in graffiti, a tradition Mattei believes started in the 1980s when he first started working there.
In their place, The Mai-Kai is sourcing unique tapa cloth patterns that are being installed on the refurbished lamps by local craftspeople, including one of the old Mai-Kai entertainers who’s also a talented artist and carver. “We’re keeping it in the family,” Mattei said, pointing out the new detail of rope trim added to the new shade (see photo above).
Previously, there were three different shade patterns in the restaurant, Mattei said. As of the time of our chat, he had confirmed six new patterns that met with the owners’ approval. But he said they were still searching for more. The goal is to have different tapa patterns for every room, though some may end up sharing patterns.
There are also multiple shade designs, from bell to hourglass to several other odd shapes. Mattei said the local artists are also trying to recreate a shade design that hasn’t been used in years.
“We’ll have different patterns, different shades, different colors, so each room is distinct,” he said. “This is a whole project in itself.”
Some of the tapa patterns may also show up in the restaurant as wallpaper, Mattei said. The artist who designed them is tweaking them to make them unique to The Mai-Kai.
Will guests continue to write on the shades? “Hopefully they won’t,” Mattei said with a chuckle.
The lamp bases are being cleaned up and repaired, but they will remain exactly as they have been for decades. These are one of those great “hidden in plain sight” details that makes The Mai-Kai special.
The current lineup of lamps includes nine unique designs, each corresponding to its dining area. “Every room, from Hawaii to Tahiti, will have their original Tiki-style bases,” Mattei said. Each base is distinctive to a specific South Seas island.
For example, The Molokai bar lamp features a New Caledonia design, the Samoa dining room lamps have Marquesan style artwork, and the Tonga room lamps include The Mai-Kai’s signature trio of cannibals from that part of the South Pacific.
The New Guinea base Mattei showed me is “typical of a Sepik style figure you’ll find in New Guinea,” he said. The other dining areas that have their own unique lamp bases are Moorea, the Garden (the area in front of the showroom stage), and the Lanai (the outdoor seating on the deck next to the Tiki garden). There are around 175 lamps total, ranging from seven on the Lanai to 39 in The Molokai.
Mattei also teased that several of the new Tiki mugs will be stylistically related to two of the lamp designs.
So where did the lamps come from? Most date back to The Mai-Kai’s last massive refurbishment in 1970, when two new dining rooms were added and The Molokai was totally redesigned.
To manufacture the lamps, The Mai-Kai turned to Oceanic Arts, the legendary California company that supplied decor and artifacts to nearly every major Polynesian bar and restaurant over the past six decades. Established in 1956 (the same year as The Mai-Kai), Oceanic Arts recently closed up shop after the retirement of founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting. One of Tiki’s most influential artists, Schmaltz passed away in June at age 87.
Many of the bases are the originals created by Oceanic Arts, Mattei confirmed. Some were damaged and replaced over the years, along with the periodic updates of the shades.
As documented in Jordan Reichek’s 2022 book Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki, Schmaltz and Van Oosting recommended designer George Nakashima to The Mai-Kai’s founding owners, Bob and Jack Thornton. Nakashima ended up handling the interior design for the 1970 expansion.
Nakashima, who worked on dozens of other Polynesian palaces throughout the U.S., “designed everything custom, such as lighting fixtures and wall trim” that was handled by Oceanic Arts and others,” according to the book. Said Van Oosting: “The Mai-Kai is the last grand-palace of Polynesian decor. There really isn’t anything still in existence quite like it.”
Allsmiller, the man tasked with bringing all that decor back to life, is literally taking his job home with him during the breaks when work had to stop in the bar and dining rooms and await permit approvals. He has been taking some of the old hanging lamps back to his workshop to restore and, in some cases, replace them. “Some of them are unsavable so I just recreate them,” he said in a social media post.
Photos from “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller’s Central Florida workshop show his work restoring some of The Mai-Kai’s lighting fixtures, some of which date back to the early days of the 65-year-old restaurant. If they’re too far gone, he simply recreates them.
The Oceanic Arts book includes correspondence from Jack Thornton in late 1959 inquiring about several light designs by Schmaltz and Van Oosting. According to the book, some of those custom hanging lamps are still there today. “We produced some and others they ended up making locally,” Van Oosting said.
When we visited on Oct. 29, Mattei showed off some of the lamps that Allsmiller has finished (see photo above). They ranged from an almost full replacement to a simple shoring up of some broken pieces. Only Allsmiller knows for sure which is which. The restoration is so accurate it will be impossible to tell if and where any work was done.
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.
When the owners of The Mai-Kai announced in December 2020 that the historic restaurant and the several acres of land the mid-century marvel has occupied since 1956 were possibly for sale, the first reaction from most longtime customers was shock and fear.
Shock that the seemingly indestructible Tiki temple had been taken down, not by the coronavirus pandemic or hurricane-force winds, but by a vicious rainstorm that caused irrecoverable damage to the kitchen that was beyond the capacity of the family-run operation to fix. And fear that the announcement that the owners were seeking partners (or buyers) meant the end of the world’s most well-preserved example of a Polynesian supper club on the grandest of scales.
They flooded social media channels to commiserate, but those emotions did not lead to resignation or despair. Rather, it lit a fire under the legions of followers that had come to love and cherish The Mai-Kai over its many decades of operation.
UPDATE:‘Save The Mai-Kai’ petition tops 10,000 signatures
Primed by the don’t-just-sit-there ethos of the pandemic, these passionate boosters quickly turned their frustration into action. The most shining example of this united front of support can be found in a petition posted on Change.org on Jan. 23. After just two days, it topped 2,600 signatures. Three weeks later, the “Save The Historic Mai-Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Show” petition was closing in on 10,000 signees. It passed that mark on Feb. 22 and has a new goal of 15,000.
The petition is aimed at Mayor Jane Bolin of Oakland Park, the Fort Lauderdale suburb that has always been an ally of its most famous business. Also named is Broward County Commissioner Lamar Fisher, whose district includes the restaurant that faces Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) just a few miles from the area’s famous beach.
It urges supporters to sign the online petition to let the officials “know that you don’t want to lose this iconic fixture that makes Oakland Park a global tourist destination and revenue source for so many.” On top of the signatures, more than 270 people took the time to post comments, lamenting the potential loss of a beloved part of their lives.
“The Mai Kai is an icon of authentic Americana in Fort Lauderdale, a place that visitors from across the U.S. and from abroad expect to find in this city – because there is nothing like it anywhere else,” wrote author Sven Kirsten, who featured the restaurant in The Book of Tiki, his influential treatise on Tiki culture.
For others, it was very personal. Holly Kriss wrote: “This is an important cultural landmark which must be saved at any cost! One of the reasons we moved permanently to FL was because of the MaiKai!!” Added Kathryn Pease: “My family and friends go to the Fort Lauderdale area specifically to go to the Mai-Kai.”
Julie Perkins summed up the feelings of many perfectly: “The Mai Kai is historically important architecturally and culturally. It is no hyperbole to say that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Other tiki restaurants exist, but very few have been in operation for over 50 years, and none with the combination of architecture, live show and gardens that attract visitors from around the world as the Mai Kai does. My family and I visit Ft. Lauderdale from Texas once or twice a year solely because of the Mai Kai.”
Fans gather on Facebook to offer support, share experiences
In addition to the petition, a new “Save the Mai-Kai” group exploded on Facebook, gathering more than 730 like-minded members in just two days and 1,400 four days after forming on Jan. 21. It’s now nearing 2,000 members and has become the site of shared emotions, from angst to despair to hope. Many take the opportunity to share family photos of their trips to The Mai-Kai, some from decades ago.
The description says the purpose of the group “is for tiki fans worldwide to band together and see what we can do to save this incredible treasure.” The group’s only rules are “Be civil” and “Be respectful.”
By all accounts, members are not just respectful but also reverential and reflective. One member shared a photo of his parents enjoying cocktails at The Mai-Kai in 1962, noting that “57 years later I finally went in 2019. Not sure why I waited so long to go.”
Undoubtedly, it was a year many would rather forget – preferably by downing a few Mai Tais. If we take “hindsight is 2020” at face value, perhaps some day there will be positive lessons to be learned from last year’s many tragedies. Despite this, not all the news was negative in the modern Tiki revival. Dispensing with the bad news first, here are The Atomic Grog’s picks for the nine most newsworthy stories of 2020. Bonus recipe below:The Urban Archaeologist (tribute to The Book of Tiki 20th anniversary and commemorative mug)
1. CORONAVIRUS SHUTDOWNS
Of all the industries that were dealt a sucker punch by the pandemic, the bar and restaurant world is the one that seems to have suffered the most long-running impact. When the mandatory closings swept across the United States (and the world) in March and April, most were ill-prepared to deal with the consequences. Heroically, the majority were able to survive by pivoting to take-out and streamlined operations. Sadly, others have remained closed with still no ETA on reopening dates. The list of businesses that closed permanently is sobering. But as we look back at the year, we’re proud of the efforts everyone put forth to keep their Tiki bars and related companies alive against all odds. We will continue to pray for their survival and encourage everyone to help as best they can.
It’s hard for a community to thrive and survive when it’s stripped of its ability to congregate en masse to celebrate and boost each other’s spirits. This hit home in the Tiki world in early March, when Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend held the dubious distinction of being the last pre-pandemic event to take place. The summer season’s blockbuster festivals were forced to scramble. Some postponed, some went to a virtual format, others canceled altogether. But there was still no keeping the fervent followers from seeking out their friends and favorite events, even in stripped-down and online-only form. We tip our hat to the organizers who keep the faithful happy and their brands alive, along with their supporters who kept their heads up and their communities alive throughout the year.
In any other year, the closing of The Mai-Kai would undoubtedly be news story No. 1. But 2020 was no ordinary year, full of curve balls and unexpected twists. After closing during April and May, The Mai-Kai reopened under state social-distancing guidelines and was successfully navigating the pandemic through the summer and fall. An inventive take-out program was pushing boundaries and pleasing fans, while the historic restaurant was consistently filling its available seats with guests eager to watch the acclaimed Polynesian Islander Revue. All that changed in late October, however, when massive rains flooded the kitchen and back-of-house after a roof collapsed during the storm. With no functioning kitchen, The Mai-Kai has closed until the extensive repairs can be done. The annual Halloween party became a drive-in movie event in the parking lot and online sales were stepped up. A family-run operation since 1956, The Mai-Kai faces perhaps its biggest challenge, possibly with a new partnership or ownership. Here’s hoping the grand reopening will top the list of 2021 news events. The Mai-Kai for sale:See the official statementNEW UPDATES: Owners vow to “preserve family legacy” while continuing take-out drinks and more events
In September, The Mai-Kai, its extended family and longtime fans mourned the death of Toti Terorotua, a founding member of the restaurant’s acclaimed Polynesian Islander Revue in 1962. “Toti was not only an outstanding musician and entertainer, he was a great friend and part of what made the Mai-Kai one great big family,” an official statement from the restaurant said. “Toti was a highly regarded musician in Tahiti before coming to the US, creating two classic Tahitian albums with his namesake band Toti’s Tahitians. You can still hear songs from his albums, along with his unforgettable voice, softly playing in the background on the Mai Kai’s nightly soundtrack.” Toti was discovered in the late 1950s by Donn Beach himself, who picked him to be part of his show at the Don the Beachcomber in Waikiki when it opened at the International Marketplace. Toti came to Fort Lauderdale and The Mai-Kai to be part of the original Polynesian show and never left. He retired 2000 after 38 years, but came back in 2006 to play drums at The Mai-Kai’s 50th anniversary at age 71. He continued to perform on stage for another decade-plus. In announcing his death, The Mai-Kai shared a tribute in Tahitian, translated to: “We will miss you so. But dreams will keep us near you. We know we’ll meet again. Farewell for just a while. For just a little while.” Listen:Buy or stream Lure Of Tahiti by Terorotua & His Tahitians