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?
There’s no better way to celebrate Independence Day than to set aside the light beer and go for the gusto with gallons and quarts of tropical drinks from the historic Mai-Kai restaurant. After re-igniting in May and continuing through June, the takeout cocktail program blasts off again on the Fourth of July weekend with a menu of four classic Tiki drinks available for pick-up June 30 and July 1.
You can’t go wrong with any of these longtime favorites: Barrel O’ Rum (gallon $95, quart $30), Black Magic (gallon $95, quart $30), Jet Pilot (gallon $156, quart $44), and Mai Tai (gallon $142, quart $40).
Also still available is The Mai-Kai’s signature 12-year-old Barbados rum from The Real McCoy. The Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend (46% ABV) was released during the pandemic and thought to be sold out. But a secret stash was recently discovered, so don’t miss your chance to grab a bottle of this rare rum ($85.60) before it’s gone.
Quantities of the cocktails are also limited, so get your order in ASAP by calling The Mai-Kai’s Pia Dahlquist at (954) 646-8975. Scheduled pick-up dates and times are Thursday, June 30 (4-6 p.m.), and Friday, July 1 (4-7 p.m.). Special arrangements can be made for other times.
Check out the previous updates below for more info on the drinks, the “Gallons To Go” program and The Mai-Kai.
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
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.
Upon completion of The Hukilau this weekend at the Beachcomber Resort and The Mai-Kai, event attendees had one additional challenge: Sunday’s “Hereafter Party” dubbed The Final Destination at Death or Glory in Delray Beach. To bring the theme full circle, The Atomic Grog presented a Zombie to end all Zombies.
This was not your typical Tiki party. Death or Glory was transformed into “Death or Gory” for the Halloween season, complete with full-on decor and a themed food and cocktail menu. Sunday’s festivities took place in the graveyard (the outdoor Tiki bar and patio) and feature the instrumental stylings of Skinny Jimmy Stingray, himself no stranger to sinister surf songs. The Hukilau 2021 recap:Daily social media photos
Similarly, the cocktail below is not your typical Zombie. Sure, The Final (Destination) Zombie may look like a Zombie and act like a Zombie, but I don’t recall ever seeing a version of this deadly classic featuring mezcal. The pungent agave spirit is right at home in this new concoction, and Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition makes it a natural fit.
This hybrid Zombie was crafted with the help of the Luau Lads from Jacksonville. This bartending duo made some of the best cocktails at The Hukilau in addition to presenting a fascinating symposium on the history of Tiki in the Sunshine State.
Since 2013, the traditional way to wrap up The Hukilau has been a Sunday afternoon party at The Mai-Kai featuring surf guitarist Skinny Jimmy Stingray, the perfect way to bring the Tiki weekender to a close with a bang. And while The Molokai bar is sadly unavailable this year, the finale has been resurrected with a ghoulish twist by one of the event’s longtime bar partners.
Get ready for The Hukilau: Final Destination, the 2021 event’s “Hereafter Party at Death or Gory in Hellray Beach” on Sunday, Sept. 19, from 3 p.m. until whenever the spirits decide it’s time to leave. Yes, this year’s finale will take a demonic twist thanks to the creative folks at Death or Glory, the acclaimed craft cocktail bar and restaurant in Delray Beach. UPDATED:The Hukilau 2021: Social media photos
Skinny Jimmy and his three-piece band will rock the outdoor Tiki bar and patio (aka graveyard), which has been decorated spooktacularly for the Halloween season. There’s plenty of space outside for both Hukilau guests and the general public, who are also invited to this free event. The band starts around 4 p.m., so don’t be late.
The Death or Gory theme extends to the food and cocktails, which include deadly libations such as The Buddy of Christ Zombie and Dead on Arrival. Sponsors Don Q and Plantation will also bring plenty of rum to the party, and you might even be able to taste an Atomic Grog cocktail as we return to host and promote the after-party for the eighth time and celebrate our 10th anniversary at The Hukilau.
The Final Destination is about 20 miles due north of the Beachcomber Resort & Club, The Hukilau’s headquarters in Pompano Beach. But thanks to the generosity of Plantation Rum, a code will be available for villagers to get free round-trip rides via Uber. Death or Glory is at 116 N.E. Sixth Ave. in the northeast corner of Delray Beach’s Atlantic Avenue dining and bar district.
A full menu will also be available for lunch and dinner. Indoor dining and bar seating is available for small parties. Visit DeathorGloryBar.com or call (561) 808-8814.
Death or Glory will also be participating as a pop-up bar during The Hukilau events at the Beachcomber, so be sure to sample their drinks and meet the bartenders. Over the past several years, guest bartenders from visiting Tiki establishments across the country have made Death or Glory their own final destination on Sundays. They often jumped behind the bar for special guest shifts, a tradition we expect to see continue this year.
Skinny Jimmy Stingray has been a fixture at The Hukilau, rocking The Molokai during the weekend with his reverential classic surf tunes and select covers. With longtime cohorts Frenchy on stand-up bass and Kevin on drums, the trio has also performed at bars and clubs around the region. Jimmy has also opened for legends such as Dick Dale, the Surfaris, and Los Straitjackets. Check out the music on Bandcamp and YouTube.
Halloween started early in “Hellray Beach” with Death or Gory kicking off on Sept. 6 this year. It’s the fourth year of the spirited seasonal pop-up, inspired by the bar’s success with the Miracle concept during the winter season. Death or Glory has transformed into the kitschy Christmas bar every year since 2017, with 2021 in the works.
* Past Atomic Grog coverage: Miracle expands in South Florida Miracle cocktails reviewed and ranked
Open since April 2017, Death or Glory was nominated for Best New American Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail in 2018. It’s known for its inventive cocktails and food, including many vegetarian and vegan options. It has an extensive spirits menu, including dozens of gins, mezcals, tequilas, and whiskeys. The rum collection tops 100 and is the largest in Palm Beach County, including many rare and premium options.
As The Mai-Kai works behind the scenes on a potential reopening, locals continue to enjoy a taste of the historic Polynesian restaurant with regular to-go cocktail offerings as well as occasional Tiki marketplaces in the parking lot.
An announcement on the future of the 64-year-old Tiki temple in Fort Lauderdale is expected to come during The Hukilau weekend in September, if not sooner. In social media posts, The Mai-Kai makes it clear that they do not currently have a reopening date, but “hope to announce one soon.” The owners urge fans to sign up for the newsletter at MaiKai.com to receive official word on future plans.
Guests arrive at The Mai-Kai Tiki Marketplace on July 18, 2021.
In the meantime, here’s a look back at the most recent Tiki Marketplace in July, which proved to be just as successful as the first one in May. All photos are from The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog.
At The Mai-Kai’s booth, manager Kern Mattei shows off some of the restaurant’s many items available for sale while guests enjoy the restaurant’s authentic cocktails.
Many were just happy to be on the grounds of The Mai-Kai with like-minded fans. Tropical drinks were available to take home or imbibe under the shade of the porte-cochère. The Mai-Kai Trading Post booth was a highlight, offering new glassware and apparel along with a vast collection of collectibles and branded merchandise.
The Mai-Kai’s entrance-exit area was turned into an oasis for tropical treats. Or just a cool place to relax.
Performers and musicians from The Mai-Kai’s long-running dinner show were part of the festivities.
Members of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue were on hand to entertain attendees, providing a much-needed taste of what makes the restaurant distinctive and historic. Until closing in October after flooding and kitchen damage caused by a vicious storm, it was considered to be the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
Robert Korhonen shows off original artwork he created in tribute to the July 18 marketplace host.
Once again, the event was expertly organized by Pia Dahlquist, The Mai-Kai’s director of public relations, who flawlessly took care of all the logistics so everything went off without a hitch. And although the usual South Florida summer heat made itself known, skies were clear and there was a constant flow of guests all day.
Quarts of The Mai-Kai’s most popular cocktails were available at the July 18 marketplace.
It was great to see members of the Thornton family and their small staff working behind the scenes and taking care of guests at the front entrance, where an array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available. The restaurant was founded in 1956 by brothers Robert and Jack Thornton, two young transplants from Chicago. Bob Thornton’s widow, Mireille Thornton, still serves as owner and choreographer of the Polynesian show while her children and other family fill other roles in the operation.
Hurricane Hayward picked up a Tiki mask from Tom Fowner (left) along with some cool artwork from the N! Satterfield booth.
The vendor marketplace opened at 11 a.m. (running until 4 p.m.), and we arrived early to get our first pick from the art booths. I was happy to snag a mask carved from palm wood by local artist Tom Fowner, a longtime contributor to The Mai-Kai perhaps best known for creating one of the three carvings in the porte-cochère that guests see when they arrive.
The Luau Lads (left) and Sandbar Sauce booths featured a tasty collection of cocktail mixers and accessories. The Atomic Grog’s booty included a selection of these goods along with Mai-Kai glassware and art by South Florida’s Nik Satterfield and Tom Fowner.
It was also a priority to pick up some craft cocktail syrups from two highly recommended purveyors: Jacksonville’s Luau Lads and Miami’s Sandbar Sauce. It was nice to finally meet Jose Salcido and taste his fresh syrups. We hope to see Michael Bloom back in Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau in September along with his fellow Lad, Kurt Rogers.
From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., guests can browse more than 20 booths containing an eclectic assortment of items while enjoying authentic Mai-Kai cocktails and three unique food options, plus live Tiki Bingo. Entertainment will be provided by musicians and performers from The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
The Mai-Kai has made a few adjustments following the overwhelming success of the first Tiki Marketplace on April 17. Guests should be aware that the one and only entry point will be via the main entrance porte-cochère at 3599 N. Federal Highway. Once inside the marketplace, you’ll be able to check out the vendors and relax under the shade of the thatched roof with a beverage and small bite. There is also plenty of entertainment on tap all day.
The Mai-Kai Tiki Marketplace schedule
* 11 a.m.-4 p.m. – Vendor marketplace, food and drinks
* Noon – Samoan Fire Knife Dance by the Polynesian Islander Revue
* 1 p.m. – Tiki Bingo hosted by the Fraternal Order of Moai
* 1:30 p.m. – Samoan Fire Knife Dance
* 2-4 p.m. – Live entertainment by Mai-Kai musicians
* 3 p.m. – Samoan Fire Knife Dance
* 4 p.m. – Tiki Bingo
The final Tiki Bingo game will be followed by a raffle featuring four signature mugs and a snifter from The Mai-Kai collection.
Bring a cooler so you can grab a quart to take home. No advance sales will be available, but fans of The Mai-Kai’s famous tropical drinks will be happy to hear that another round of take-home quarts (and gallons) will be offered on Friday-Saturday, July 23-24. Email Pia Dahlquist, The Mai-Kai’s director of public relations, for more information. You can also sign up for the email list to get news and announcements on future events, plus cocktails to go.
To beat the summer heat, a cool and refreshing item will be available Sunday: Tropical shaved ice from Kona Ice. The two local food trucks that served up tasty treats in April will return. M.C.K. Fusion from Mobile Culinary Kitchens (Colombian and Latin fusion) and Inspir-Asian (Chinese street food) will provide everything from tacos and quesadillas, to shrimp and fried rice.
We’re honored to once again be a sponsor of the event, along with the Gumbo Limbo Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Moai, the premier fraternal organization and social network for Tiki culture and Polynesian pop enthusiasts. Many vendors are also returning from the first marketplace, selling everything from Tiki and retro-inspired art and collectibles, to clothing, glassware and much more.
The Mai-Kai Tiki Marketplace vendors, July 2021
The Mai-Kai Trading Post has been constantly updating its offerings, so look for new as well as classic items for sale. A wide selection of clothing and glassware has been offered over the past several months. Leftover stock may be available in the online store, but popular items sell out, so don’t be late.
Many of the booths from the April event will be back, along with a selection of new artists and businesses:
NEW:ALOHA ARTS – Native South Seas artist Kealoha Pa creates tropical art on wood batik, including jewelry, gift boxes, furniture, and screens. His works have been exhibited at various venues throughout Hawaii.