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.”
* Buy Lure Of Tahiti by Terorotua & His Tahitians
In 64 years, The Mai-Kai has never failed to celebrate the anniversary of its Dec. 28, 1956, opening with its own distinctive flair. This year will be no exception, despite a global pandemic and an unfortunate roof collapse in October that forced the restaurant’s temporary closing.
It is finally the end of 2020 and we’re here to help you finish strong. We have made a fresh batch of Rum Barrels and…
On Monday, the owners of the historic landmark in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park will open up their vast parking lot for Under The Mai-Kai Moon, the 2020 version of the annual Customer “Mahalo” Appreciation Party. The socially distanced event sold out less than a week after going on sale.
The event is not just a bittersweet celebration. Proceeds will benefit laid-off employees as well as keeping The Mai-Kai in business until repairs are finished. Unfortunately, it could be a long process (see below).
Since 1962, the centerpiece of any celebration at The Mai-Kai has been the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. Under The Mai-Kai Moon will feature three performances by the acclaimed group, which includes dancers and musicians from islands in every corner of Polynesia.
Cars will be spread out across the 150-space lot behind the restaurant with gaps in between to allow a “tailgate party” atmosphere, except it won’t be BYOB. The Mai-Kai will be selling several signature cocktails as well as beer, wine and soft drinks. One or more food trucks will be on hand to provide ample options for noshing.
The event will run from 6 to 10 p.m., and vehicles can arrive as early as 5:30. Unlike the recent Hulaween Drive-In Movie party, there’s no cutoff time on arrivals. All parking spots will allow views of the performances, and guests can spread out their folding chairs in adjoining empty spaces.
You’ll want to be there by 8 p.m., however, to catch the first of three shows by the Polynesian Islander Revue. The performances will be staged on a flatbed truck, which will be moved around to different locations to allow all cars a good view, according to The Mai-Kai’s director of public relations, Pia Dahlquist. A DJ will also be spinning tunes to keep the atmosphere lively.
On April 20, The Hukilau announced that its 19th annual Tiki weekender scheduled for June 3-7 in Fort Laduerdale was being postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. In its place will be a series of events across the country aimed at raising money for Tiki bars devastated by shutdowns. Click the link below for more info.
Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, famously came up with the idea of a lavish and immersive lounge featuring South Pacific themes and Caribbean cocktails in the 1930s. But it took two upstart restaurateurs and one of Beach’s top bartenders to take the Tiki concept to a whole new level when they opened The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale in 1956.
At The Hukilau, set for June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale, find out how the combination of the insightful ownership of Bob and Jack Thornton along with the mixology skills of former Don the Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine set a standard of tropical cocktail excellence that has stood the test of time for more than 60 years.
Sticking closely to Beach’s groundbreaking secret recipes, but putting their own more modern and accessible spin on them, the brothers and their head bartender envisioned a menu of some 50 elaborate libations that endure and are beloved to this day under the continued ownership of Bob Thornton’s family.
Learn how The Mai-Kai still follows Don the Beachcomber’s procedures and standards that were created nearly 90 years ago to maintain the mystery and allure of the modern tropical cocktail in the restaurant’s secret back bars.
Join Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog and some very special guests for an exploration of the passing of the torch from Donn Beach to the Thornton brothers, and the key role of Licudine in keeping these historic cocktails alive and thriving.
NOTE: The Hukilau 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. A series of online events was held in its place. The 2019 recap below was posted before the pandemic. The Hukilau is returning to a live format in September 2021.
The Hukilau’s 2020 entertainment lineup will be announced on Feb. 3, when event tickets and passes go on sale for the 19th annual Tiki weekender June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale. While The Mai-Kai remains the nerve center of the Polynesian Pop celebration for the 18th straight year, most of the festivities will be centered at the B Ocean Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
After five years as host hotel, the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina closed for a years-long refurbishment and re-imagining on the day after The Hukilau 2019. To give you a preview of what you can expect during the whirlwind weekend, following is a look back at last year’s festivities. While this Top 10 list is nowhere near complete in capturing the diversity of activities that encompassed the five-day bash, it offers a snapshot of some of the more memorable moments.
Mahalo to the venues, the organizers, all the participants and (especially) all the villagers who attended. Special thanks to those who provided photos for use below. Here’s a sampling of what we enjoyed, in no particular order …
Like the daily thunderstorms that didn’t seem to dampen anybody’s spirits, The Hukilau careened through Fort Lauderdale last week for its 18th annual Tiki weekender with an exhaustive schedule of events at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel, B Ocean Resort and the historic Mai-Kai restaurant.
The host Pier Sixty-Six shut down immediately after the event for several years of expansion and renovations, so it was a bittersweet party. But that didn’t stop The Hukilau’s villagers from throwing their cares to the wind while enjoying a seemingly limitless supply of Tiki cocktails, educational symposiums, mixology and craft classes, dozens of live music performances, vintage mermaid swimshows, all-day pool parties, dinner and shows at The Mai-Kai, plus a whole lot more.
Look for more upcoming posts with photos and special reports on events including the Tiki Tower Takeover and our Rums of The Mai-Kai class and symposium. Here’s a look back at all the fun via social media posts …
The Hukilau 2019: Women of Tiki take over the tower
Thursday, June 6, was tropical cocktail heaven during the opening festivities of The Hukilau at Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina in Fort Lauderdale. The signature Tiki Tower Takeover cocktail party included eight of the world’s top female Tiki bartenders. Between sampling all the delicious drinks, hanging out with friends and enjoying the gorgeous views from the 17th-floor Pier Top Lounge, we managed to snap a few photos. Coming soon, a blog recap featuring more photos plus cocktail reviews and ratings. >>>> CLICK HERE FOR THE FACEBOOK PHOTO GALLERY