In the entertainment and hospitality industry, your biggest fans can also be your toughest critics. So when the new owner of South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai sat down with more than 100 Tiki enthusiasts during The Hukilau on June 11 for an open discussion of his plans to renovate the 65-year-old landmark, their reaction was crucial.
Judging by the many rousing ovations throughout the 50-minute presentation, veteran real estate developer and historic preservationist Bill Fuller passed the test with flying colors. The only murmurs of dissent came when the organizer of The Hukilau, Richard Oneslager, jokingly asked if it was true Fuller planned to replace the restaurant’s signature Chinese ovens with microwaves, and if The Molokai bar was being re-themed to Miami Vice.
Looming thunderstorms put a kibosh on the multimedia presentation planned for the open-air beachside gathering at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach. But Fuller’s words were more than enough to win over the crowd who came from around the world to the 19th Tiki weekender that traditionally culminates with a climactic evening at The Mai-Kai.
Fuller elaborated on those plans during his talk at The Hukilau, divulging some new details. He was joined by two members of The Mai-Kai family, Kulani Thornton Gelardi and Kern Mattei, who also revealed some interesting new projects in the works.
After a spirited intro by event emcee King Kululele, Oneslager sat down with Fuller and led a question-and-answer session under the large thatched hut between the pool and beach at the quaint boutique hotel. The burning questions on everyone’s mind, Oneslager said to Fuller, were: “What’s going to stay? What’s going to change? And are you going to screw things up?”
Fuller said he was “lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to join forces with the family” in September 2021. The reason The Mai-Kai is being preserved is mainly due to the will of the Thornton family, he said. Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, inherited the ownership mantle from her late husband, Robert Thornton, in 1989.
The 85-year-old family matriarch will continue to choreograph and produce the restaurant’s authentic Polynesian show, which she joined as a dancer from Tahiti in the early 1960s. “She has her own nuances, which is what makes special experiences like this tick,” Fuller said. “You can’t just replicate it, you need to have that body of knowledge, that creativity and heritage. That’s what’s so rich within the walls of The Mai-Kai.”
The first question for Fuller from the audience echoed a common refrain on social media: Exactly when can we expect to be back within those walls?
The Hukilau was back on the beach for 2022, hosting its many retro-themed Tiki festivities at a scenic hotel just north of Fort Lauderdale. The 19th Polynesian Pop weekender (the second longest-running in the world), featured four days of live music, educational seminars, cocktails and rum tastings, plus lots more. Click below for extensive photo/video recaps on social media. Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday
The Beachcomber, a family-owned property in Pompano Beach, features lots of outdoor space just steps from the Atlantic Ocean. The Mai-Kai, the longtime host restaurant that remains closed for refurbishment, participated by serving cocktails and offering villagers drinks to go. The new ownership team also presented an exclusive symposium on the exciting new plans for the historic property.
The Hukilau 2022 – June 9-12 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras, King Kukulele, Skinny Jimmy Stingray), symposiums (Ian Burrell, David Wondrich, The Mai-Kai, Rocket Betty, Spike Marble, Headhunter Ray, Jeff Ballard), 15 guest bars, rum tastings, luau on the beach, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more. Official website | Instagram | Facebook page and group
The first weekend in June brought a blast of stormy weather to South Florida, but the second weekend promises an entirely different – and much more festive – tropical disturbance. The Hukilau will innundate the Fort Lauderdale area beachfront with four days of rum-soaked activities, rockin’ surf bands and special guests from across the worldwide Tiki revival.
The 19th Polynesian Pop celebration is scheduled for Wednesday through Sunday, June 9-12, at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Highlights include Friday’s luau on the beach and Saturday’s giant Tiki marketplace. Pool parties will feature music by top underground bands (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras) and cocktails served up by 16 Tiki bar teams from near and far.
By Thursday, the hurricane season’s first potential tropical system will be long gone. Weekend forecasts call for rain chances around 30 to 40 percent with high temperatures near 90, a typical early summer weekend in balmy South Florida.
Most of The Hukilau’s events and social gatherings take place poolside and under shaded thatched huts at the beachside resort. Organizers are prepared in case of bad weather with back-up plans to move some events indoors, but coverings in the outdoor areas can shield guests during typical rainy days.
The event is not yet sold out, so check the tickets page at TheHukilau.com for pass availability. The best bet for locals and late arrivals is the one-day Palm Pass ($129), which includes Saturday’s Rum Island Pool Party and Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus the evening bungalow parties. Online sales will continue to be available, but walk-ups will also be accommodated on Saturday.
Other options include the multi-day Aloha (Friday-Saturday) and South Seas (Thursday-Saturday) passes. Many symposiums and special events are included in the price of the top-tier passes. All guests receive complimentary craft cocktails from some of the world’s best bartenders as well as tastings of sponsor rums.
If you’re still looking for a room, it’s worth checking the Beachcomber first. The resort is close to selling out, but a few rooms are often held back for last-minute release. There’s also the possibility of cancellations at any time. Call (954) 941-7830 for reservations, and be aware that you’ll need to show proof of an event pass at check-in.
Don’t fret if all of the 150-odd rooms at the Beachcomber are taken, however. The beachfront along scenic State Road A1A is loaded with options, including many small boutique hotels and motels. The official alternate hotel is the Ocean Beach Resort & Suites, a half-mile to the north. Call (954) 942-2030 and mention The Hukilau for a special rate.
The move last year to the Beachcomber was party due to necessity because of the pandemic. It provided much outdoor space, along with a smaller room count as well as fewer expenses. Past host hotels have included massive properties such as the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, which closed for a multi-year refurbishment immediately after The Hukilau 2019.
But the change did not come without some sense of serendipity. The Hukilau, after all, is named for an oceanside gathering of family and friends for a giant fishing festival.
“This is what The Hukilau is meant to be,” organizer Richard Oneslager said in a recent interview. “We’re on the ocean, doing business with a family-run property.”
The entire hotel is reserved for The Hukilau, which both limits its size and makes for a more immersive event. It’s a “complete escape to a Tiki paradise,” Oneslager said, referring to the experience as “our own little world.” Because there are no outsiders, “everyone around you is part of the show,” he said. Very few events can offer that complete package.
Oneslager said there are no plans to grow more than a modest 5 or 10 percent. He said he likes the current configuration, which gives villagers the opportunity to meet new friends, but still have an intimate experience. Previous story: More on the hotel and event history
“Having the whole property to ourselves is a big thing,” he said. While he won’t give an exact number, Oneslager said the total number of passes sold this year will be less than 750. That aligns The Hukilau more with the many medium-sized multi-day events rather than the giant Tiki Oasis in San Diego. The Tiki Times:The Atomic Grog’s exclusive events guide
In addition to all the major highlights on the schedule and noted below, Oneslager continues to add fun, last-minute features. He mentioned the return of Tiki miniature golf as well as a series of outdoor “Ohana-Rama” games that you can play at your leisure or join a competition. There will also be a Tiki bingo event Saturday to benefit the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s educational foundation.
When The Mai-Kai completes a multimillion-dollar renovation, guests of the historic restaurant will be treated to several major enhancements, including a more immersive arrival experience and a new banquet hall.
The head of the new ownership group broke the news and unveiled artist renderings during an online presentation for the city of Oakland Park and The Mai-Kai’s neighborhood residents in late April.
Also crucial to the reopening plans for the 65-year-old Polynesian palace, the refurbishment includes upgrading the aging roofs and air conditioning system, along with the ground-up construction of a new kitchen.
Fans of The Mai-Kai’s vintage look and feel should not fear these changes, however. The chief executive who leads both the land management firm that bought a controlling interest and the hospitality company that will be operating The Mai-Kai says there are no plans to alter the experience once guests walk through the doors.
This includes a planned revival of the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. From the nautical-themed Molokai bar to the dining rooms named for South Seas islands, a night at The Mai-Kai will remain a transportive time capsule considered to be the last grand mid-century Polynesian supper club in the world.
“There are thousands of beautiful historic properties all over the world that are sitting vacant without their proper use, said Bill Fuller, managing partner of Miami’s Barlington Group “This is just an amazing example of a historic property that is sustainable.” Fuller’s real estate development company specializes in revitalizing cultural institutions and neighborhoods across the country.
In a question-and-answer session after the April 26 meeting to share the “plans and visions” for the reopening, Fuller spoke in realistic terms about how to best preserve The Mai-Kai: “Although we are restricted based on the historic preservation, it is absolutely imperative that we are successful from a business perspective so that we can preserve all the other great attributes of The Mai-Kai,” he said. “Not just the architectural features, but the entire immersive experience including the shows, the music, the food, the drinks.”
The new ownership team, led by Fuller’s Tiki Real Estate LLC, paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage. The real estate purchase is valued at more than $16 million. “Over the last few months, we have been developing plans and securing permits,” Fuller said at the start of the neighborhood participation meeting. “We anticipate reopening in the fall of this coming year.”
“We care deeply about the community of Oakland Park and are grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve had,” Fuller said. After the presentation, a neighborhood resident praised the plans and said he was thrilled that The Mai-Kai will be returning as a staple destination in the area. “It will be a great day to see it open,” he added.
A blessing in disguise? Roof collapse leads to ownership change, renovations
The Mai-Kai is a local and national historic landmark, a beloved Polynesian restaurant that opened on Dec. 28, 1956. For more than six decades, it resolutely withstood the tests of time and gained a loyal worldwide following among of generations of guests.
But all that changed suddenly and dramatically in October 2020, when a blast of intense tropical weather led to the collapse of the aging roof over the kitchen. The damage rendered a large swath of the back-of-house beyond repair. This rear addition, which featured a flat roof and was not part of the original A-frame, was built during an expansion in the early 1970s.
Facing the biggest crisis in the restaurant’s history, The Mai-Kai owners signed a deal late last year that ensures both the future of the enduring brand and the family legacy started by brothers Robert and Jack Thornton. The family matriarch and widow of Bob Thornton, former Polynesian Islander Revue performer Mireille Thornton, will remain the show’s creative director as well as The Mai-Kai’s heart and soul.
Key family and management will continue to steer the ship, but the future of The Mai-Kai is now in the very capable hands of Fuller and his companies. Several Barlington Group properties – including Ball and Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano in Little Havana’s historic Calle Ocho – are also managed by Mad Room Hospitality.
“We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the family said in the announcement of the sale in September.
Fans and followers of The Mai-Kai have been on the edge of their seats ever since, wondering what was going to happen to their beloved Tiki temple. Now, finally, we’re about to find out what Fuller and his team have in store for us.
“For over 60 years, The Mai-Kai has hosted millions who enjoy an immersive Polynesian experience,” Fuller said at the top of his Oakland Park presentation. “My companies formed a partnership with the Thornton family and we are collectively investing heavily to restore The Mai-Kai so that we can all enjoy it for the next 60 years.”
The East Coast’s longest running Tiki weekender is back in full force this June, including many familiar faces along with new features and entertainment for villagers to enjoy at the oceanfront Beachcomber Resort in South Florida. Tickets and room reservations are available now for the 19th live edition of The Hukilau, set for June 9-12, 2022.
Pompano Beach’s Beachcomber Resort & Club hosted the scaled-down 2021 event, proving to be the perfect venue for a more intimate but mostly outdoor gathering of the Tiki tribe. The entire hotel is once again reserved for The Hukilau’s guests. But with fewer than 150 rooms available, it may fill up fast. Call (954) 941-7830 to reserve your spot at the party now. (Reservations will require proof of an event pass at check-in.)
Additional hotels nearby will be announced soon, so don’t despair if the Beachcomber fills up. But locals and those staying elsewhere should consider snagging event passes now before they start to sell out. Tickets are available at three different price points, from $129 to $569. The top-level South Seas Pass includes access to every party and event, most symposiums, a beachside luau and Sunday brunch, unlimited cocktails and rum tastings, a limited-edition pendant, plus more! More info on tickets and passes below.
The Hukilau 2022 – June 9-12 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Surfrajettes, The Intoxicators, The Manakooras, King Kukulele, et al.), symposiums (Ian Burrell, David Wondrich, Rocket Betty, Spike Marble, Headhunter Ray, et al.), 16 guest bars, rum tastings, luau on the beach, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
* Official website | Instagram | Facebook page and group
While the venue remains small and cozy, the lineup of guests has been expanded for 2022 to include some of the top names in the Tiki, rum and cocktail world. Some old friends are returning after taking a respite during COVID, and new ones are making their first appearance. Below is our take on the most exciting news out the recent announcement, followed by a full rundown on the musical guests,symposium presenters, guest bars, special features, plus the early schedule and info on tickets and passes. You might also want to mix up the Cobra Defanged recipe below (featured at The Hukilau 2021) and enjoy while you get psyched up for 2022.
The Atomic Grog’s Top 5 highlights of The Hukilau 2022
Billed as a “four-day Tiki extravaganza celebrating the history of Polynesian Pop,” The Hukilau has always beefed up that basic premise with lots contemporary artists with a retro-inspired bent. In recent years, the event has also become a top destination for rum and tropical cocktail enthusiasts. A growing roster of bars, bartenders, industry experts and spirits companies flock to “Fort Liquordale” for the festive atmosphere and friendly fans.
In no particular order, here are the some of the unique offerings that we’re looking forward to this year:
The Mai-Kai last hosted an event during The Hukilau 2021 in September, just before the Thornton family announced the sale of the historic property to a new ownership team that will pump at least $5 million into renovations that will restore the restaurant to its vintage glory.
* Past coverage: The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening
THE MAI-KAI SNEAK PREVIEW
For those of us eagerly awaiting news on the future of the legendary Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale, The Hukilau will give us exclusive insights from the new ownership group. Bill Fuller and his crew from Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality are scheduled to share the refurbishment plans in an exclusive presentation on Saturday, June 11. The 65-year-old restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a roof collapse shut down the kitchen and back-of-house operations. Luckily, the stunning decor and dining rooms remain intact, but they’re also due for freshening up. The new owners are partnering with the founding Thornton family to keep The Mai-Kai’s rich legacy alive. Also part of the new crew are longtime managers who are hard at work ramping up the bar to serve The Mai-Kai’s famous cocktails for the first time since The Hukilau 2021 in September. Look for a pop-up bar featuring select signature drinks throughout the weekend.
DAVID WONDRICH JOINS THE PARTY
For more than 20 years, this James Beard Award winning author, cocktail historian, mixologist and educator has documented the craft cocktail movement while also becoming one of the world’s foremost authorities on drinks history. The former English professor gained national exposure as Esquire Magazine‘s drinks correspondent, along with his four acclaimed books:Esquire Drinks, Killer Cocktails, Imbibe! and Punch. His most recent gig was senior drinks columnist at The Daily Beast and co-host of the Life Behind Bars podcast. His latest achievement is serving as editor of The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, an 860-page opus that serves as the first major reference work on the subject. Wondrich is a frequent guest lecturer and regular seminar host at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. It will be an honor to see the Brooklyn, N.Y., resident make his first appearance at The Hukilau in 2022.
* Follow Wondrich on Twitter
THE RUM AMBASSADOR RETURNS
Ian Burrell is back for his fifth appearance at The Hukilau, teaching an Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class and hosting one of his signature “$1,000 Rum Tasting” events. The self-appointed global rum ambassador, Burrell is a charismatic spokesman for the spirit, entertaining host, and all-around fun guy to hang out with. Which makes him the perfect fit for The Hukilau. He previously treated villagers to similar premium rum tastings in 2018 and 2019, offering attendees samples of four to six rums that sell at retail for a combined value in excess of $1,000.
* Related: Take 5 with Ian Burrell | More blogs featuring Ian Burrell
THE SURFRAJETTES HEADLINE STRONG MUSICAL LINEUP
Surf music fans are in for a treat as The Hukilau welcomes back The Surfrajettes, the all-female instrumental combo from Canada that has been building an ever-increasing underground following and online fanbase since making their first and only appearance at the event in 2017. The foursome’s long-awaited debut album, Roller Fink, is due out April 22 on Hi-Tide Recordings. Veteran instro surf rockers The Intoxicators will once again make the trek from Tallahassee to knock our socks off for the 16th time. (If we’re lucky, we may also see an appearance of the band’s alter ego, The Disasternauts.) Also appearing is Southern supergroup The Manakooras, featuring members of Satan’s Pilgrims, Aqualads and The Intoxicators. The band boasts a unique blend of surf music with steel guitar, ukulele and exotica-influenced percussion. Last but not least, longtime emcee King Kukulele is back where he belongs after missing The Hukilau 2021. The Southern California musician, comedian and entertainer has been a fixture at Tiki events across the country over the past two decades, including every previous Hukilau through 2019. His humor, ad libs and easy-going style are a much-needed addition.
* Full list of performers below
16 TOP TIKI BARS ON TAP
Where else can you sample world-class cocktails from Paris, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Chicago all in one place? At The Hukilau, of course, where Dirty Dick, Tonga Hut, Hidden Harbor, and Three Dots and a Dash are among the amazing number of guest bars scheduled to pop during the four-day event. Each will offer several signature and/or classic Tiki cocktails, mixed and served by the owners, managers and bartenders from these high-profile establishments. New for 2022: Look for smaller samples to keep waste to a minimum. And this all comes at no additional cost beyond your event pass, a deal that’s hard to beat. See the full list of bars below
Below is a rundown of everything we know so far. Much more will be announced in the coming weeks. Sign up for email updates at TheHukilau.com and follow the social media links above. We’ll also cover the major updates here on the blog, plus our social channels. We’re also happy to once again be posting updates on Tiki Central, the influential message board that was instrumental in the creation of The Hukilau 20 years ago. After two years of downtime for extensive renovations, it’s back up and running just in time.
MUSIC & ENTERTAINMENT
Look for bands and musicians performing day and night during the pool parties and other events at the Beachcomber. Those confirmed so far include:
The Surfrajettes (Toronto) – Fresh off a high-profile cruise with The Beach Boys, these underground instrumental surf sensations are making inroads toward broader success and appreciation. If you miss them at The Hukilau, be sure to catch them on their upcoming U.S. tour.
The Intoxicators (Tallahassee) – This hard-hitting instrumental foursome can create a racket, but their extremely tight and accomplished musicianship, memorable tunes and unbridled enthusiasm for The Hukilau create a comforting experience year after year. Check out their catalog of past releases.
After going virtual in 2020 and moving to a September weekend in 2021, The Hukilau is back on track with its traditional early June gathering of the Tiki tribe in South Florida.
The East Coast’s longest-running Tiki weekender will return to the cozy Beachcomber Resort & Club on the ocean in Pompano Beach for its 19th live event on June 9-12. The four-day format will remain similar to the Sept. 16-19 meet-up, which featured most of its activity in the many outdoor spaces at the 140-room boutique hotel. Once again, the entire resort is reserved for The Hukilau’s “villagers,” said organizer Richard Oneslager, noting that several other nearby venues will also be available for “the growing number of villagers” who continue to flock to the event each year.
Exclusive early access to reservations at the Beachcomber will be offered first to longtime villagers, Oneslager said. After “loyalty guests” have a chance to reserve rooms, the remaining inventory will be offered to the general public along with a streamlined menu of event tickets.
Oneslager promised the return of most of the event’s signature features, including a full slate of symposiums and musical guests, 15 pop-up bars from around the world, a massive vendor marketplace, plus a signature luau on the beach. Expect to see some new faces along with many popular returning entertainers and VIPs from the past, including everyone’s favorite global rum ambassador.
Unfortunately, The Hukilau 2022 will likely not include any events at The Mai-Kai, the beloved Fort Lauderdale restaurant that remains closed for a multimillion-dollar renovation expected to be completed later this year, Oneslager said. The ongoing work on the historic property will prevent it from hosting guests, he said. But he was happy to announce that The Mai-Kai will host a pop-up bar and bungalow party. In addition, the new ownership team will share the refurbishment plans in an exclusive presentation.
The Mai-Kai hosted its last outdoor cocktail party in the restaurant parking lot during The Hukilau on Sept. 18, just before announcing the partnership with Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality that will pump more than $5 million into restoring the 64-year-old landmark. A severe storm in October 2020 caused a roof collapse over the kitchen, crippling the back-of-house operations and forcing the founding Thornton family to seek out its new partners.
In addition to The Mai-Kai pop-up featuring the restaurant’s classic tropical cocktails, villagers will have the opportunity to sample many other drinks crafted by some of the Tiki scene’s top mixologists from bars near and far. The Beachcomber’s quaint bungalows will also host parties thrown by rum sponsors and other groups every night of The Hukilau.
Event passes will cover most of the weekend activities for one price, including symposiums and unlimited cocktails. Details on tickets, entertainment and the daily schedule will be announced along with general public room reservations.
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.
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
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.