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?
While we await the completion of renovations and the grand reopening, The Mai-Kai’s famous tropical drinks are available for pick-up on multiple dates through the end of 2022. >>> Info on all the dates and how to order
There’s no better way to beat the South Florida heat during the dog days of summer than with gallons and quarts of tropical drinks from the historic Mai-Kai restaurant. After relaunching in May and continuing through August, the takeout menu returns again for Labor Day weekend with four classic Tiki cocktails available for pick-up on Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 1-3.
Cool off this summer with takeout cocktails from The Mai-Kai
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 Sept. 1 (4-6 p.m.), Sept. 2 (4-6 p.m.), and Sept. 3 (10 a.m.-noon). 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.
We remain thankful for every bit of good news. While a few of the stories below are frustrating (No. 4) or bittersweet (No. 1), they’re far out-numbered by the explosions of creativity and collective talent that drove most of the year’s activity. For that, we toast the entire Tiki community with a new cocktail and The Atomic Grog’s picks for the 10 most newsworthy stories of 2021. Bonus recipe below:The Tiki Lover
1. ALOHA AND FAREWELL, OCEANIC ARTS
As sure as the sun rose in the east and set in the west, there was one enduring creative force over the past six decades of Polynesian Pop style. In November 2021, there was a total eclipse and extended period of mourning when it was announced that Oceanic Arts would be closing its doors as its 80-something-year-old founders embark on a well-deserved retirement. Established in 1956 in Southern California by Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz, the company was always the go-to provider of original and imported pieces of South Seas art and decor for everyone from home enthusiasts to theme park giants including Disney (the doors to Trader Sam’s in Disneyland are Schmaltz’ handiwork). Art and woodwork originating from Oceanic Arts has been featured in nearly every legendary Polynesian palace, from Don the Beachcomber to Trader Vic’s to The Mai-Kai. The company put together movie set pieces and provided the distinctive style of many of the mid 20th century’s Tiki-themed hotels and motels, bowling alleys, and countless other establishments. Buoyed by the Tiki revival, the small shop in Whittier became a mecca for Tikiphiles from around the world and inspired a new generation of carvers and artists in the 21st century.
While the closing seemed to have come out of the blue, Van Oosting and Schmaltz had been planning their retirement for some time. They joined forces with longtime friend Jordan Reichek, owner of Peekaboo Gallery in nearby Montrose, for an epic career-spanning retrospective coming in 2022. In the spring, look for what’s being called an “experiential Tiki exhibition” featuring art and artifacts from Oceanic Arts paired with special events that include live music and performances, panel discussions, an “epic Tiki bar,” and more. The events will culminate with the “ultimate Tiki auction” art show and sale. In the meantime, the gallery is taking pre-orders for a mammoth Oceanic Arts history book compiled and written by Reichek, who worked closely with Van Oosting and Schmaltz. Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki is a 500-page opus that documents the rich history of Oceanic Arts via thousands of photos, original artwork and historical documents from the archives. After 65 years, Oceanic Arts leaves an indelible mark on pop culture that is likely to last for many more decades to come.
The entire Tiki community heaved a sigh of relief in September when the announcement came that The Mai-Kai – the historic, 65-year-old restaurant in Fort Lauderdale that has been closed due to storm damage since October 2020 – was saved from extinction by a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into a restoration and refurbishment. The year started with much concern after press reports emerged about the roof damage that destroyed the kitchen. A “Save The Mai-Kai” petition gathered more than 10,000 signatures in less than a month as devoted fans united online to share their support and concerns. The skeleton crew of owners and staff continued to offer regular takeout cocktails and began a series of events in the expansive parking lot. The highlights were The Mai-Kai’s first-ever Tiki Marketplace in April featuring vendors, entertainers, cocktails, rum tasting and more. A follow-up event in July kept the momentum going while behind-the-scene negotiations were likely starting to ramp up.
The big announcement came in September, just after hundreds of Tikiphiles from around the country finally returned to Fort Lauderdale for the 19th edition of The Hukilau. Then, a week later, the long-awaited news dropped. The founding Thornton family released details on social media on Sept. 28, outlining the joint venture with a South Florida-based real estate investment and development company known for working with legacy businesses. Its sister hospitality company already operates several vintage venues in Miami’s Little Havana. “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!” Check out links to our in-depth report above and latest updates below.
The crushing blow of the pandemic was not easy to overcome for event organizers, but we slowly came out of our homes in 2021 and began to gather again in safe and physically-distanced environments. Longtime online meet-ups – most notably Tiki Trail Live and Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour – continued to thrive. But many longed for live human interaction, and a handful of key (mainly outdoor) events delivered that experience in the year’s early months. Then, when vaccines became widely available, we saw the return of several major Tiki events starting with Arizona Tiki Oasis on April 22-25. Carefully organized by Baby Doe and Otto von Stroheim, the event paved the way for an active summer, including the couple’s flagship Tiki Oasis on July 28 -Aug. 1 in San Diego. Momentum slowed in the late summer and fall as the first of several coronavirus variants emerged, but Tikiphiles still flocked to scaled-down events including Ohana: Luau At The Lake in upstate New York, The Hukilau and Tiki Fever in Florida, and Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, Calif. Rum aficionados around the world also were able to get back into the swing of tasting events, from the Jamaica Rum Festival in March to the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in November. See the full list of major 2021 events below.
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 close out 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. Check out all of the updates over the past year below, and keep an eye out for lots more as work ramps up in 2023.
DEC. 30 – The Mai-Kai turns 66 as work progresses on multiple renovation projects
The Mai-Kai’s 66th birthday passed quietly on Dec. 28, but there are many reasons to be hopeful that the 67th anniversary in 2023 will be the first since 2019 when we’ll once again be able to gather inside the historic Fort Lauderdale restaurant to appreciate its grandeur and beauty.
The multimillion-dollar renovation that kicked off earlier this year is turning out to be a slow and meticulous process. But rest assured that no expenses are being spared, nor any corners being cut, as the owners and management aim for a possible spring reopening.
Luckily, locals were still able to toast the anniversary – and celebrate the year-end holidays in style – with takeout cocktails prepared by manager Kern Mattei and organized by public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Both stayed busy filling orders for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the latest opportunity to pick up quarts and gallons to go. Look for new dates to be announced soon for 2023.
Following is a detailed recap from our final peek inside the hallowed halls as work was winding down before the holiday break …
Typhoon Tommy: The one-man master restoration machine
I arrived at the main entrance of The Mai-Kai on Wednesday, Dec. 21, to find creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller up on a ladder just inside the main foyer, hard at work restoring the woodwork high above my head. The young craftsman – whose past work can be seen at both Universal and Disney parks, along with several notable Tiki establishments – began working on the interior restoration in July.
Allsmiller has spent the past six months bringing The Molokai bar back to its vintage glory. He gave us a tour while also discussing one of his most painstaking projects: Refurbishing many of the hundreds of lamps hanging throughout the restaurant. Many of these date back to the early years of The Mai-Kai and were created by the venerable Oceanic Arts. [See past coverage below]
It was the designer’s last day of the year working inside the building, but as usual he planned to take his work home with him to central Florida to continue to rebuild lamps in workshop over the holiday break. He said that when he returns in January, he plans to have a partner helping him kickstart work on his long list of projects.
The Molokai is nearly done, Allsmiller said, pointing out all of the woodwork that has been completed. Painters will arrive next to do the finishing touches on the nautical-themed bar that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s early 1970s expansion. Much of the stylized decor – such as the ship’s rigging and props on display – were featured in the classic Marlin Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and purchased from the MGM prop department.
Allsmiller showed off an Easter egg he left hidden high in the rafters of The Molokai: Part of a decorative wood panel that pre-dates the 1970 redressing of the bar. These painted panels were originally used outside the front door and throughout The Molokai. [See our original post below]
Later, in the back office, we spotted several large panels that Allsmiller was able to remove nearly intact after being covered for more than 50 years. He said he found the painted wood pieces, which can be seen in vintage Mai-Kai photos, when he redid the beam above the front door.
“They’re in great shape, so I thought I’d save them, not cover them up,” Allsmiller said. Could they be destined for use elsewhere in the refurbishment?
A table set up near the entrance to The Molokai was overflowing with lamps in various stages of restoration. The restaurant is filled to the brim with these incredibly detailed works of functional art, but Allsmiller said he’s making progress.
He pointed out one of the lamps that required a full rebuild of its insides. He said he plans to put a new top on it before returning it to its spot hanging from the ceiling.
A great example of the length Allsmiller will go to in restoring these lamps was a weathered, hourglass-shaped fixture that he totally rebuilt. He’s still working on the trim work on the vintage lamp, which he found with a badly ripped panel.
To ensure that the repair looks exactly like the original, he used old fiberglass paper that was removed elsewhere. “It fits the timeline,” he said. He then hand-painted it to mimic the original. The entire internal structure is all brand new, but his work using a pinstriping brush on the restored panels will be undetectable when its returned to its perch.
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 TIKI TIMES: 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.
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.
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.