The structural footprint of The Mai-Kai changed dramatically last month with the demolition of the long-dormant Bora Bora building, which will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and fully immersive tropical-themed parking lot, outdoor seating area and porte-cochère at the historic South Florida restaurant.
Amid the ruckus outside, the restoration efforts inside the main building advanced quietly but deliberately. Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and fellow Orlando-area artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed the New Guinea dining room, a vintage space that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s 1956 opening. They also restored the ceiling and walls near the Tonga dining room, and by the end of the month were full immersed in the Hawaii room.
Laser-focused on The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of custom lamps, they cranked out replicas and refurbished many originals created 50 years ago. After they finish, it will be impossible to tell which lamps are rebuilt and which are vintage, an over-arching theme of the restoration efforts.
Meanwhile, the back-of-house area was a total construction zone as crews prepared for the installation of a new bar and kitchen. Up on the roof, workers were busy sealing the main A-frame and working on new vents, along with the structures to hold the new air-conditioning system.
After electrical work was done, a painting crew put the finishing touches on the men’s restroom. Electricians continued an infrastructure overhaul, preparing for the upcoming installation of a new circuit breaker system.
It’s no surprise that April saw an acceleration of renovation work on multiple fronts. In March, The Mai-Kai officially began the $8.5 million project after three permits cleared the way for three major projects:
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing.
* Removal of the Bora Bora building.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen.
The repairs and refurbishments became necessary after the 26,000-square-foot restaurant suffered a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen in late October of 2020. The plans – which include both restoring the main building and upgrading and enhancing the parking lot and back of house – became clear after the founding Thornton family sold a majority interest to a new ownership team led by the Barlington Group and historic preservationist Bill Fuller.
The permit approvals restarted the roof thatching project in March. By April, thatching was completed on the porte-cochère as well as the A-frame roofs over the back dining rooms. All that remained was detailing and finishing work, which will happen later.
As April progressed, The Mai-Kai applied for three new permits that will keep projects moving quickly. On April 25, the city of Oakland Park issued a mechanical permit that will allow for the installation of the new kitchen. It won’t expire until Oct. 23, which fits in with the timeline we’re hearing about a reopening coming in the fall.
A mechanical permit for “fire suppression” was applied for in April, then issued in May This likely covers not only a new sprinkler system, but a fine-tuning off The Mai-Kai’s elaborate rooftop exhaust system that pulls smoke from the main showroom after the fire-dancers perform in the Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in the early 1960s, it’s the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).
There was no fancy groundbreaking or ribbon cutting, but March 6 was a significant date in the long journey toward the restoration and reimagination of The Mai-Kai, southeast Florida’s historic Polynesian restaurant. That’s when work officially began on three different projects that had been stalled for months awaiting building permits.
The city of Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee approved the site plan at a Jan. 26 meeting, but details remained to be ironed out as they made their way through the governmental process before permits could be issued. Committee approval was considered to be the final hurdle, so the wait to get started seemed interminable for the owners and staff, who have been planning the massive renovations for nearly a year while working on smaller restoration projects.
But even those projects became bogged down due to The Mai-Kai’s status as a local and national historic landmark. For example, work on replacing old thatched roofing, which began in late summer, had to stop in October and await multiple approvals. On Jan. 11, the city’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the ambitious $8.5 million project.
That left the 10-member Development Review Committee, composed of officials from various departments and disciplines across the city, to weigh in and give the project a green light. The approval, also unanimous, ended up being a flashing red light for five weeks as the general contractor and others waited at the starting line, engines idling.
The three long-awaited permits finally came through on Friday, March 3, joining an earlier approval that will together enable The Mai-Kai to move full-steam ahead in an effort to re-open the beloved restaurant in late 2023. It has been closed since Oct. 25, 2020, when a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen rendered the 26,000-square-foot restaurant unable to serve diners for the first time in its 66-year history.
After more than two years of downtime, not a minute was wasted in kick-starting work on multiple fronts last week. While you may not yet notice anything new as you drive by the 2.7 acres at 3599 N. Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) northwest of coastal Fort Lauderdale, there’s a lot going on inside and to the rear of the property. Work started on Monday, March 6, and by the time I visited on Thursday, March 9, the property was abuzz with activity. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind” since the permits were approved, said manager Kern Mattei, who deals with most of the on-site logistics. “We’ve been super busy.”
Guests picking up take-out cocktails this week should be able to get a peek at some of the action. Just be aware that construction may require the closure of some areas of the parking lot, so keep an eye out for updated directions and those ubiquitous orange cones.
Mattei gave me an overview of The Mai-Kai’s current state along with plans for projects relating to all three permits, graciously allowing me a peek behind the scenes on March 9. Many of the photos above and below were taken during that visit. Here’s a synopsis of the three permits issued March 3 and the projects they encompass:
* Removal of the Bora Bora building. An essential first step in the total reimagination of The Mai-Kai’s entry and parking lot experience, this will be the first project to be completed. Mattei said that the demolition job is out for bid by the general contractor. Once a firm is selected, the removal of the building will likely happen quickly, since the permit expires May 2. In the meantime, Mattei said, he and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller are overseeing the removal of all salvageable pieces from the historic building, which dates back to the early 1970s and has been vacant since it was damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Once the building is removed, the massive landscaping project can begin.
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing. Already underway since last year but now four months behind schedule after work was halted, this project was quickly re-started last week. Workers on hydraulic lifts were busy shoring up the crossbeams of the soaring A-frame structure. Allsmiller will lead an effort to repair the stylized extension on the peak of the A-frame, restoring it back to its original design. Realistic synthetic thatch approved by the city will then cover the entire roof. The thatching project will also include The Mai-Kai’s massive main A-frame, along with the two smaller peaked roofs over the back dining rooms that are nearly complete. Wood, thatch, and other materials were already on site March 9, awaiting installation by South Florida’s Tiki King. The porte-cochère permit doesn’t expire until Aug. 30. A separate re-roofing permit is “in review,” the step before approval. The previous roofing permit expired March 2.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen. Also running through Aug. 30, this over-arching permit allows The Mai-Kai to install a temporary kitchen in space that onece contained back-of-house offices. A permit that was issued last May (expiring Aug. 8) covers the installation of a new air-conditioning system on all of the completed roofs. Steel beams that will go onto the roof to support the AC units are ready and waiting, painted to blend in with the decor. The general contractor was working in the old staff locker rooms March 9, peeling off the drywall and ceiling. I did not get a look at this, since it was a hard-hat area, but we know from the plans that this will be the location of the new permanent back bar. The provisional kitchen is a stopgap measure to get the restaurant up and running as quickly as possible, albeit with a limited menu. The buildout of a full kitchen will be part of Phase 2, estimated to be a year or more down the road. The second phase will also include the event center, which will be built next to the kitchen in what was once storage space.
Tiki fans packed a conference room early on the first day of Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend on Jan. 20, eager to hear and see details of the upcoming multimillion-dollar refurbishments planned for the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in South Florida. The Atomic Grog was happy to oblige, presenting exclusive photos, renderings and video of the project that is poised to shift into high gear in the coming months.
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward sprinkled the presentation on the 225-seat room’s large screen with new images and architectural plans. Appearing via pre-recorded video, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller took viewers on 10-minute walk-through of his work in The Molokai bar, one of the restaurant’s oldest dining rooms, plus a stroll through the gardens. The video received a great response after the interior designer and craftsman urged attendees to enjoy their Mai-Kai cocktails after the presentation.
Other upcoming projects were detailed for the first time, including new Mai-Kai mugs and other merchandise by contemporary Tiki artists, plus a signature rum blend from two historic Caribbean distilleries. After digesting all the news, the approximately 175 guests were invited to quench their thirst with authentic Mai-Kai cocktails in a poolside VIP lounge for a meet-and-greet event.
The fourth Inuhele event was held Jan. 20-22 at the Atlanta Sheraton Downtown, just two blocks from the historic Trader Vic’s location, where many attendees paid a nightly pilgrimage. Highlights included a wide array of presentations all three days, an authentic luau, rocking live bands, a marketplace featuring many top artists and craftspeople, daily room parties and special events, plus more. Check out our event preview for an overview of the diversity and creativity of Inuhele’s offerings. Event recap and more photos coming soon!
It was a pleasure to share all the latest exclusive information on The Mai-Kai refurbishment plans with an enthusiastic audience. It was the first presentation on the first day, and the line to enter the “Jungle Room” stretched down the hall and into the lobby.
Mahalo to Jonathan and Allison Chaffin and their expert staff for the great event. And okole maluna to hospitality director Lucky Munro and Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner for their help with the cocktails. The support staff at the presentation was also very gracious, helping us solve a few technical issues and get the event on track as fast as we could. We hope to see y’all next year!
Inuhele, which started in 2018 as the Atlanta Tiki home bar tour, means “cocktail journey.” So I thought it was only fitting to kick off the show by talking about my personal cocktail journey at The Mai-Kai. My fascination with the delicious drinks, and the Tiki revival in general, started there around 15 years ago and is still going strong. Go to The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide to see the results of this journey.
Past presentations at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai have included deep dives into the cocktails, the menu, and the restaurant’s historic rum collection. In 2022, we turned our attention on the blog to the massive renovation project, posting exclusive news and photos as work progressed. When the opportunity arose to share our insights at Inuhele, we jumped at the chance.
None of this would have been possible without the crucial cooperation and assistance of several key members of The Mai-Kai team who have be extremely helpful over the years with all of our coverage: General manager Kern Mattei and public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Also mentioned at the top of the presentation was the leader of the new ownership team, Bill Fuller, a founder of both real estate development firm Barlington Group and restaurant management group Mad Room Hospitality.
I thanked Fuller for having the vision to restore and reimagine The Mai-Kai, and for providing access and graciously answering all my questions as I continue to cover the most magical restaurant in the world.
CHAPTER 1 – The Legacy
While most Tikphiles in attendance knew quite a bit about the 66-year history of The Mai-Kai, we couldn’t discuss the significance of the current renovations without a brief tour through the past. Opened Dec. 28, 1956, in the small Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park, The Mai-Kai became a local and national historic landmark in 2014.
The dining rooms were outfitted with authentic artifacts from Polynesia, along with much work by budding restaurant decor firm Oceanic Arts. Massive Tikis by legendary carver Barney West were installed in the early 1960s. Sadly, only one survives. But it’s due to be restored as part of the refurbishments.
The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue was the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii) until the 2020 closing due to a roof collapse over the kitchen and back-of-house area. The show’s original bandleader, Toti Terorotua, came from Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii and continued to perform until shortly before his death in 2020. Inuhele guests were treated to the sounds of Terorotua & His Tahitians, his band from the 1950s, before and after the presentation.
Launched in 1962, the stage show is poised for a comeback under the leadership of Mireille Thornton. She started as a dancer, soon became the show producer and choreographer, then married owner Bob Thornton. The family, led by daughter Kulani Thornton Gelardi, remains part of the ownership team and will continue to run the restaurant and serve as its creative force.
The Mai Kai was already considered a landmark when it expanded in 1970. The $1 million project (see image above) included new dining rooms, lush landscaping of what is now the Tiki gardens, and the construction of the 7,000-square-foot back-of-house section that was compromised in October 2020. Also added were the kitchen’s rare Chinese wood-burning ovens, which were saved and will be relocated.
Also added: A redesign of The Molokai lounge using decor salvaged from the Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The nautical theme extends to the entrance area and back of house. One of the bar’s signature features is windows that are covered in a constant faux rainstorm that adds to the illusion of being trapped in a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon.
The 1970 additions would be the last major construction project at The Mai-Kai until 2022. For the next five decades, the restaurant cemented its reputation as the most grand Polynesian palace built during the mid 20th century.
CHAPTER 2: The Deluge
The Mai-Kai managed better than most during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. While indoor service shut down, cocktails and food were available to go, and the restaurant fully reopened after two months. But the old adage “when it rains, it pours” proved to be true (literally) when a massive storm hit in late October at the same time a pipe burst in a main sprinkler system line, leading to the collapse of the roof over the 1970s-era kitchen.
The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday night unanimously approved the sweeping renovation plans for The Mai-Kai, moving the ambitious $8.5 million project to rejuvenate and reopen the 66-year-old restaurant one step closer to final approval.
In a nearly two-hour public hearing in the City Hall Commission Chambers and streamed online via Zoom, the board members OK’d The Mai-Kai’s application for a “certificate of appropriateness” to make a wide range of changes to the 2.7-acre property, which is registered as both a local and national historic landmark. City code requires such an approval for work to proceed on “any alteration requiring a building permit which may change the exterior appearance of an individually designated historic building or structure.”
The approval came with a list of six recommendations by city staff that will still need to be adhered to. But those addenda to the plan likely won’t require a return to the full five-member board. After the meeting, the head of The Mai-Kai’s ownership group, Bill Fuller, told us that he was pleased that the city and board were able to “collaborate with us on the restoration plans.” He described the hearing as “very productive” and “the culmination of what The Mai-Kai will look like” when it reopens.
The overall plans are now headed to Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee, which could give it the final go-ahead. This next step covers many other details not related to the historic status, such as parking, Fuller said in an interview Thursday. His team is eager to move forward “as quickly as possible,” he said.
The committee is scheduled the review the project at its Jan. 26 meeting. After that, it should be full-steam ahead for the renovation plans. “We’re going to be guns blazing to get it open,” Fuller said. The Mai-Kai has been closed for 26 months and counting, so the owners and investors are eager to begin operating the cash registers again.
Fuller said the benchmark goal is to open in time for the June 9-12 return of The Hukilau, the Polynesian Pop weekender that draws thousands to The Mai-Kai from around the world. That would fit in with the announced goal to be back in business by the time summer starts.
To meet this deadline, however, the initial site plan will not include every piece of the project, Fuller said. The new event space, for example, will come later in Phase 2. Since that space, along with the adjacent new kitchen, entail new construction from the ground up, they will be pushed back until after the initial reopening, he said.
Fuller said The Mai-Kai will employ a “provisional kitchen” until the permanent structure is completed. This will mean that a limited food menu will be offered at first, but Fuller promised a full beverage menu.
The approval of the certificate of appropriateness, or COA, was crucial in allowing The Mai-Kai to lock into the most important elements of its reimagining of the South Seas themed tropical paradise on Federal Highway. Without it, they were unable to obtain building permits for the major enhancements.
The restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a torrential rainstorm and malfunctioning sprinkler system caused a massive roof collapse over the kitchen. A large chunk of the back of house had to be demolished, but most of the historic guest areas of the sprawling, 450-capacity venue remained unscathed. It’s the first extended closure since The Mai-Kai’s opening on Dec. 28, 1956.
When the scope of the restoration became evident, the founding Thornton family embarked on a joint venture with Fuller, the developer and historic preservationist who leads Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. The partnership paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage, according to reports of the sale in October 2021. Another $1 million was added to the budget for crucial enhancements, Fuller revealed at The Hukilau in June.
Fuller and Barlington Group have a wealth of experience with commercial properties in South Florida, many of them historically significant. Tenants include Fort Lauderdale’s Toasted Bagelry & Deli, plus Little Havana’s Blackbird Ordinary, 8 Burger, Little Havana Cigar Factory, and the 87-year-old landmark Ball & Chain music venue. Mad Room Hospitality, which operates Ball & Chain, will run The Mai-Kai along with the Thornton family.
To ensure both the economic viability of The Mai-Kai and the restoration of all its classic elements, Fuller and a team of architects and designers mapped out a creative plan to modernize the kitchen, add an event space and reimagine the property while keeping most of the historic elements intact. Initial artwork and renderings were unveiled at an Oakland Park neighborhood participation meeting in late April.
The new ownership group requested the COA approval “for the renovation and improvement” of the property at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale. The initial plans were first submitted to the Development Review Committee in May, but due to a number of delays they did not come up for approval before the Historic Preservation Board until this week.
Work inside on restoring the elaborately themed dining rooms and Tiki garden has been ongoing since July. But updates, changes and additions to the exterior and grounds were stalled while awaiting the plans to be approved in their entirety.
Among the key elements of the plan presented to the board:
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.
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.