The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

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.

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Bill Fuller, leader of the new ownership team that purchased The Mai-Kai in late 2021, speaks to attendees of The Hukilau 2022 at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach on June 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Bill Fuller, leader of the new ownership team that purchased The Mai-Kai in late 2021, speaks to attendees of The Hukilau 2022 at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach on June 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.

Closed since October 2020 due to massive flooding that damaged the kitchen beyond repair, the historic property is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar refurbishment. Plans spearheaded by Fuller’s ownership group, which partnered with The Mai-Kai’s founding Thornton family, became public in April after a presentation to the city of Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.

The Mai-Kai's renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space
EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

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?”

Mireille Thornton on stage at The Mai-Kai in the early 1970s. (Mai-Kai photo)
Mireille Thornton on stage at The Mai-Kai in the early 1970s. (Mai-Kai photo)

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?

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022”

EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai's renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

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 Mai-Kai

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.

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022
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Renderings of refurbishment plans for The Mai-Kai, presented to residents of Oakland Park on April 26.
Renderings of refurbishment plans for The Mai-Kai, presented to residents of Oakland Park on April 26.

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.

A rendering of a new event space proposed for the rear of The Mai-Kai under plans being proposed to the city of Oakland Park. (Design by Typhoon Tommy)
A rendering of a new event space proposed for the rear of The Mai-Kai under plans being proposed to the city of Oakland Park. (Design by Typhoon Tommy)

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.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Roof project: Crucial work underway to shore up historic structure
Entrance experience: Flow of parking lot to be reimagined
New event space: Banquet hall planned next to reconstructed kitchen
Behind the scenes: The Mai-Kai interior intact with exciting additions in the works
What’s next? New owner promises continued effort to restore and upgrade

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.

Mireille Thornton, The Mai-Kai's longtime owner and producer of its authentic Polynesian shows. (Mai-Kai photo)
Mireille Thornton, The Mai-Kai’s longtime owner and producer of its authentic Polynesian shows. (Mai-Kai photo)

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.

Past coverage
* The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening

Bill Fuller, who heads The Mai-Kai's new ownership group, shows plans and renderings and describes proposed renovations to the historic restaurant during an online meeting with Oakland Park residents on April 26.
Bill Fuller, who heads The Mai-Kai’s new ownership group, shows plans and renderings and describes proposed renovations to the historic restaurant during an online meeting with Oakland Park residents on April 26.

“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.”

Continue reading “EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space”

UPDATES: Latest news on The Mai-Kai renovations and reopening in 2022

There was much rejoicing after the announcement in September 2021 that after being closed for nearly a year, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale would reopen in 2022 under a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into an extensive refurbishment and renovations. A devastating roof collapse in the kitchen in October 2020 had shut down indoor service indefinitely. Click here for our full story on the announcement and the ownership transition.

Now, as we move forward in 2022, fans and supporters are eager to learn details on the plans and progress. While we follow The Mai-Kai’s social media pages for updates, we’ll keep a running list of news on this page for easy reference. Please bookmark and check back for the latest info on the refurbishment of the historic Polynesian restaurant.

A rendering of the proposed new entrance to The Mai-Kai, as presented to Oakland Park residents on April 26.
A rendering of the proposed new entrance to The Mai-Kai, as presented to Oakland Park residents on April 26.

The Mai-Kai official sites and social media
MaiKai.com | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

LATEST UPDATES

JUNE 29 – The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

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.

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.

FULL COVERAGE OF THE PRESENTATION

*********************

JUNE 23 – Takeout cocktails return for Fourth of July weekend

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.

Blast into summer with takeout cocktails from The Mai-Kai

Locals can once again pick up quarts and gallons of the Barrel O’ Rum, Black Magic, Jet Pilot, and Mai Tai. Also still available are a limited number of bottles of The Mai-Kai’s signature rum released in 2020: The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend.

Continue reading “UPDATES: Latest news on The Mai-Kai renovations and reopening in 2022”

The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening

Fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening of The Mai-Kai

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.

The Mai-Kai's official announcement on the sale and new partnership

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 through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers
EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers

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.

2022 UPDATES
* Latest news on the reopening plans
* The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau
* The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

Past coverage: Thousands of fans unite to show support for The Mai-Kai during closing

Guests of The Hukilau gathered at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 for the "Save Paradise Party." (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Guests of The Hukilau gathered at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 for the “Save Paradise Party.” (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

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.”

Kulani Thornton Gelardi serves appreciative guests at a special event at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 during The Hukilau. She later assured the crowd that the restaurant will reopen soon. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Kulani Thornton Gelardi serves appreciative guests at a special event at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 during The Hukilau. She later assured the crowd that the restaurant will reopen soon. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.”

>>> The official press release on MaiKai.com

New owners ‘humbled’ and ‘honored’ to be able ‘preserve the legacy” of The Mai-Kai

Mai-Kai musicians perform for guests of The Hukilau on Sept. 18. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Mai-Kai musicians perform for guests of The Hukilau on Sept. 18. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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 Mai-Kai in 1956 and today
The Mai-Kai in 1956 and today.

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.

Mai-Kai cocktails: Authentic and tribute recipes, news on quarts and gallons to go

The Mai-Kai cost new partners $7.5M with renovations expected to boost value to $16M

A 1979 photo of original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine in The Molokai bar with his signature tropical drinks
A 1979 photo of original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine in The Molokai bar with his signature tropical drinks.

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.

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening”