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?
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.”
There was much rejoicing after the announcement in September 2021 that after being closed for nearly a year, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale would reopen under a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into an extensive refurbishment and renovations. A devastating roof collapse in the kitchen in October 2020 had shut down indoor service indefinitely.
Now, as we move toward the end of 2022 and work progresses, fans and supporters are eager to learn details. The Atomic Grog will keep you updated with the latest info on the refurbishment of the historic Polynesian restaurant. Bookmark this page and check back often.
NOV. 15 – The Mai-Kai announces potential reopening in spring 2023
Delays both expected and unexpected have pushed back the target reopening timeframe to the spring of 2023, according to an official announcement that went out to The Mai-Kai’s email list.
Here’s the full text of the announcement, titled “An official update from the Mai-Kai Team” …
First of all, we would like to thank all of our loyal Mai-Kai customers and fans for their unending support and most of all patience while we continue our restoration and repairs.
We are working very hard behind the scenes to bring The Mai-Kai back and better than ever. As we continue our updates which include interior décor renovations and repairs as well as new construction in heavily damaged areas, we are running into expected and some unexpected delays.
We are now looking at a potential reopening in the Spring of 2023.
We are very thankful for all of the outreach and support that we have been receiving from all of you and look forward to welcoming you back as soon as we can.
Check back for more detailed updates on the renovations.
NOV. 7 – Interior renovations shed light on The Mai-Kai’s historic lamp designs
As sometimes happens in multimillion-dollar construction projects as large in size and scope as The Mai-Kai, there are inevitable delays beyond anyone’s control. Most of the current wait involves city permits for multiple jobs, which are complicated by the restaurant’s local and national historic status. Something as simple as installing thatch needs to be executed with historic standards in mind.
But there is a silver lining amid all the red tape: Additional time becomes an asset to the managers and craftspeople working on restoring the interior decor in The Mai-Kai’s many elaborately detailed dining rooms. Manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller both have their hands full with multiple projects inside the building that they continue to work on during the slowdowns on the larger projects outside.
Mattei is coordinating the ongoing development of new glassware and Tiki mugs, plus T-shirt and Aloha shirt designs for both staff and customers. He was also happy to confirm recently that a deal was signed with noted artist Mcbiff to create signature artwork and merchandise for The Mai-Kai (teased in our Sept. 19 update below).
One of the most fascinating jobs on Mattei’s plate is the refurbishment of one of The Mai-Kai’s coolest hidden gems: The nearly 200 distinctive table lamps that cast a warm and exotic glow throughout the restaurant.
To the uninitiated, these small lamps themed to the Polynesian islands are most notable for the thousands of signatures and remembrances scrawled upon the shades by guests over the past several decades. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a lot more than meets the eye.
We got to check out that same prototype shade recently in the back office, where Mattei gave us the lowdown on the project. Gone are the shades covered in graffiti, a tradition Mattei believes started in the 1980s when he first started working there.
In their place, The Mai-Kai is sourcing unique tapa cloth patterns that are being installed on the refurbished lamps by local craftspeople, including one of the old Mai-Kai entertainers who’s also a talented artist and carver. “We’re keeping it in the family,” Mattei said, pointing out the new detail of rope trim added to the new shade (see photo above).
Previously, there were three different shade patterns in the restaurant, Mattei said. As of the time of our chat, he had confirmed six new patterns that met with the owners’ approval. But he said they were still searching for more. The goal is to have different tapa patterns for every room, though some may end up sharing patterns.
There are also multiple shade designs, from bell to hourglass to several other odd shapes. Mattei said the local artists are also trying to recreate a shade design that hasn’t been used in years.
“We’ll have different patterns, different shades, different colors, so each room is distinct,” he said. “This is a whole project in itself.”
Some of the tapa patterns may also show up in the restaurant as wallpaper, Mattei said. The artist who designed them is tweaking them to make them unique to The Mai-Kai.
Will guests continue to write on the shades? “Hopefully they won’t,” Mattei said with a chuckle.
The lamp bases are being cleaned up and repaired, but they will remain exactly as they have been for decades. These are one of those great “hidden in plain sight” details that makes The Mai-Kai special.
The current lineup of lamps includes nine unique designs, each corresponding to its dining area. “Every room, from Hawaii to Tahiti, will have their original Tiki-style bases,” Mattei said. Each base is distinctive to a specific South Seas island.
For example, The Molokai bar lamp features a New Caledonia design, the Samoa dining room lamps have Marquesan style artwork, and the Tonga room lamps include The Mai-Kai’s signature trio of cannibals from that part of the South Pacific.
The New Guinea base Mattei showed me is “typical of a Sepik style figure you’ll find in New Guinea,” he said. The other dining areas that have their own unique lamp bases are Moorea, the Garden (the area in front of the showroom stage), and the Lanai (the outdoor seating on the deck next to the Tiki garden). There are around 175 lamps total, ranging from seven on the Lanai to 39 in The Molokai.
Mattei also teased that several of the new Tiki mugs will be stylistically related to two of the lamp designs.
So where did the lamps come from? Most date back to The Mai-Kai’s last massive refurbishment in 1970, when two new dining rooms were added and The Molokai was totally redesigned.
To manufacture the lamps, The Mai-Kai turned to Oceanic Arts, the legendary California company that supplied decor and artifacts to nearly every major Polynesian bar and restaurant over the past six decades. Established in 1956 (the same year as The Mai-Kai), Oceanic Arts recently closed up shop after the retirement of founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting. One of Tiki’s most influential artists, Schmaltz passed away in June at age 87.
Many of the bases are the originals created by Oceanic Arts, Mattei confirmed. Some were damaged and replaced over the years, along with the periodic updates of the shades.
As documented in Jordan Reichek’s 2022 book Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki, Schmaltz and Van Oosting recommended designer George Nakashima to The Mai-Kai’s founding owners, Bob and Jack Thornton. Nakashima ended up handling the interior design for the 1970 expansion.
Nakashima, who worked on dozens of other Polynesian palaces throughout the U.S., “designed everything custom, such as lighting fixtures and wall trim” that was handled by Oceanic Arts and others,” according to the book. Said Van Oosting: “The Mai-Kai is the last grand-palace of Polynesian decor. There really isn’t anything still in existence quite like it.”
Allsmiller, the man tasked with bringing all that decor back to life, is literally taking his job home with him during the breaks when work had to stop in the bar and dining rooms and await permit approvals. He has been taking some of the old hanging lamps back to his workshop to restore and, in some cases, replace them. “Some of them are unsavable so I just recreate them,” he said in a social media post.
Photos from “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller’s Central Florida workshop show his work restoring some of The Mai-Kai’s lighting fixtures, some of which date back to the early days of the 65-year-old restaurant. If they’re too far gone, he simply recreates them.
The Oceanic Arts book includes correspondence from Jack Thornton in late 1959 inquiring about several light designs by Schmaltz and Van Oosting. According to the book, some of those custom hanging lamps are still there today. “We produced some and others they ended up making locally,” Van Oosting said.
When we visited on Oct. 29, Mattei showed off some of the lamps that Allsmiller has finished (see photo above). They ranged from an almost full replacement to a simple shoring up of some broken pieces. Only Allsmiller knows for sure which is which. The restoration is so accurate it will be impossible to tell if and where any work was done.