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.
Closed since October 2020 due to massive flooding that damaged the kitchen beyond repair, the historic property is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar refurbishment. Plans spearheaded by Fuller’s ownership group, which partnered with The Mai-Kai’s founding Thornton family, became public in April after a presentation to the city of Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
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?
“We’re trying to get open by the end of this year. Ideally, we’d like to open in November,” Fuller said to a round of applause. “An outside date I’d like to try to open by is Dec. 28, which was the original date of the (1956) opening. We’re going to try really hard to get it open by then.”
UPDATES: Latest news on The Mai-Kai renovations and reopening in 2022
When will the historic Polynesian restaurant be welcoming back guests? We’ll keep you updated with the latest news.
Renovation would create a reimagined portal to paradise
The scope of the refurbishment is immense. Plans call for building a new driveway and reimagining the entrance experience, adding much new landscaping, rebuilding the kitchen, then adding a brand new event space.
Fuller admitted that not everything will be done at once. “We might open with a little bit of a limited menu,” he said. The back-of-house will need the most time to finish, he said, adding that the event space probably won’t open until next spring due to the extensive construction and city approvals required.
He went into detail about the transformed entrance, revealing that the plans include a lush tropical environment including an outdoor bar. “For me, The Mai-Kai is the ultimate immersive escapism experience,” Fuller said.
Fuller said that the current porte-cochère falls short in this regard. To address that, he said, his team is in the process of submitting plans to the city that will create a “fully immersive experience” as soon as guests enter the property from Federal Highway.
In these plans, the new driveway will curve north of the porte-cochère, wind behind the two large banyan trees, then funnel traffic into a roundabout on the western side of the property. Fuller said this will create an extensive “runway” for arriving vehicles, less back-up on Federal, and an easier flow that accommodates the increasing number of rideshare customers.
But even more important than “facilitating all the runway traffic,” Fuller said, is the creation of an new exterior foyer or entrance to The Mai-Kai. He explained the vision for this lushly landscaped and hardscaped experience in detail, including information not included in the presentation to the city.
“Before you go in for a show, you can hang out there, have drinks, and be in a tropical environment,” Fuller said. “We hope to have a bar out there, tucked between the two Banyan trees.” He added that guests will also have a much more pleasant experience leaving the venue, since they won’t be forced to immediately get their car from the valet.
Fuller said the enhanced entrance will cost around $1 million, money that was not in the original budget. But he said that he and his partners and investors, which include The Hukilau’s Oneslager, understand the net worth of these investments.
“I think that everybody who invested really just cares about bringing The Mai-Kai back to its glory” more than quick returns, Fuller said. He elicited one of the day’s largest rounds of applause when he added: “If we need to spend an extra million dollars or two, we’re going to do it because we want it to be perfect.”
This penchant for perfection includes details such as authentic landscaping. Fuller said Oakland Park has approved an exception to its zoning rules to allow for the addition of coconut palms along 20th Street behind restaurant, adding to a canopy that will block views in and out of the property. “You’ll never see the houses and the houses won’t see The Mai-Kai,” he said.
These distinctive trees are native to the South Pacific and iconic in much of South Florida. But cities have begun banning them, reportedly out of fear of lawsuits over falling coconuts. “They made a waiver to allow us to recreate the beach in Tahiti,” Fuller said.
Once guests enter The Mai-Kai, however, little will change in The Molokai bar and the elaborately themed dining rooms, the crowd was assured. “We really, really want to keep it authentic,” said Gelardi, who Fuller introduced as a third-generation owner who was “born and raised at The Mai-Kai.”
Reimagined Mai-Kai to include museum, new rum
“When you walk into The Molokai, it will look like The Molokai. When you walk into the dining room, it will look like the dining room,” she said, adding that most of the major changes are happening to the exterior and back-of-house.
“The roof is being fixed, the AC is being fixed,” Gelardi said. The dining rooms will be spruced up but not changed. “It will look amazing” when it’s completed, she said proudly.
Gelardi also announced plans to turn her father’s old office into a Mai-Kai museum. Located in a back-of-house area that was not damaged, the 1970s-era office remains in much the same condition it was when it was occupied by Bob Thornton.
On a recent visit, we saw a vintage ship model that had been removed from the office for refurbishment. The office was also used by Gelardi’s brother, former owner/general manager Dave Levy, but he was inspired to keep it as authentic as possible to his stepfather’s original decor. Levy retired from The Mai-Kai in 2020 after more than three decades as GM.
The other significant news at the presentation came from someone Fuller called The Mai-Kai’s “brand ambassador and historian.” Longtime manager Kern Mattei, whose office sits right next door to Thornton’s, is a second generation employee and family member. He took over the job in 1993, following in the footsteps of father Kern Mattei Sr., who was general manager from 1964 to 1991. His mother is Mireille Thornton’s sister and was also a Mai-Kai dancer.
Mattei said he just returned from a meeting with distillers and blenders in Barbados. The goal of the project is to recreate a long-lost rum that was a key ingredient in many of the vintage tropical drinks. “We are deep in the process of trying to recreate something that is similar to the Dagger rum and that will work to enhance The Mai-Kai cocktails and bring back some of that original flavor that you got in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said.
“Right now, we’re creating our own Mai-Kai blend in-house, using different rums, mixing it by hand,” he said. “But we’d like to get that pre-done for us and have that bottle and possibly have it for sale.”
Mattei said that the rum is still a work in progress, but “once we get it down, it will make the Mai-Kai drinks top-notch.” Miami Rum Festival organizer Robert Burr introduced The Mai-Kai to the owners of The West Indies Rum Distillery, founded in 1893 and the island’s second oldest and largest rum producer.
Fuller made sure to thank other key members of the team who were very familiar to The Hukilau guests. This included Pia Dahlquist, the director of public relations and jack of all trades who spent the weekend juggling her job handling Mai-Kai takeout cocktail orders with organizing The Hukilau’s vendor marketplace.
“We’re going to try to bring back as much of the original staff as possible,” Fuller said. “They’re going to be welcomed back. You cannot rebuild all of the knowledge and all of the culture from all those years. It’s not just the walls, its really about the people. That’s also a secret of The Mai-Kai’s success.”
The spirit of ‘ohana was in air all weekend, and The Hukilau was definitely a family affair for The Mai-Kai crew. John Gelardi, the restaurant’s catering director as well as Kulani’s husband, joined Mattei in serving up cocktails on Thursday and Friday nights. They brought back several drinks that had not been served since the 2020 closing, both Mai-Kai originals: the Mai-Kai Swizzle and the Mutiny.
And Mattei’s son, Nicholas, joined other former Mai-Kai performers Friday on the beach at sunset for an authentic South Seas show. The dancing and music immediately brought back the spirit of the Polynesian Islander Revue while Hukilau villagers enjoyed the luau.
New Mai-Kai ownership invests in the future, preserves the past
Fuller praised the family for staying true to their ideals and keeping the business alive after the cost of repairing the roof damage became clear. “They could have made a decision to sell to the highest and best bidder, which would have been multi-family or mixed use development,” he said.
But it was clear The Mai-Kai is a special place, surviving for more than 60 years. “It was rare to have the business stay open for so long, and be so successful, especially in the restaurant industry,” he said.
But Fuller said the process of joining forces was still “nerve-wracking and extensive.” He said Kulani told him: “If you can win my mother over, then I think we’re good.”
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The group’s final presentation did the trick, he said. “Mireille was very moved. It was very emotional for me, it was very emotional for the family. Ultimately, I think it’s the right marriage.”
Fuller said everyone involved understands this isn’t a quick fix. “We know we have to invest significant amounts of time and dollars,” he said. “We really want to make sure that the venue from a physical perspective is sound for the next 60-plus years and the next generation.”
Another challenge is peeling back the layers to figure out what “may have been diluted or forgotten over time,” he said. “Part of the fun of the whole project is understanding the history of The Mai-Kai and what has been lost and realizing what can be done under the entire Mai-Kai universe without exploiting it, without diluting it, without really f***ing it up.”
Fuller recalled first discovering The Mai-Kai in the early ’80s: “I grew up in Miami, and for us it was always a pilgrimage to go to The Mai-Kai.” Over the decades, it became the area’s go-to spot for special events, such as birthdays and anniversaries. “In South Florida, I don’t think there’s anything close to what The Mai-Kai presented,” he said.
While The Mai-Kai is already a local and national historic landmark, he went as far as saying it should also be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comparing Bob and Jack Thornton to Walt Disney’s early Imagineers. “If you think about when they first started constructing The Mai-Kai in 1953 and seeded the concept, it was like a race with Walt building Disneyland at the same time,” Fuller said.
The young brothers were influenced by the kings of the Polynesian restaurant concept, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, but they took The Mai-Kai to the next level. The immersive experience and special effects they created in the 1950s “were just mind-blowing,” Fuller said.
For Fuller’s team, that initial spark of creativity is a driving influence on the refurbishment. “We like to see the project as if we were in Bob and Jack Thornton’s shoes,” he said. “Or as stewards and curators of their original vision. When doing any new creation or new aspect of the venue, it’s all about: How would Bob or Jack have seen this?”
The brothers oversaw the addition of a 7,000-square-foot kitchen in the early 1970s, along with the current Molokai bar and other enhancements. They recouped the $1 million investment in the last major update to the venue the very next year, 1972.
New addition will give The Mai-Kai a secluded spot for special events
But in 2020, when a main line of the fire sprinkler system ruptured during a massive storm, the 1971 addition’s old roofing material became its Achilles’ heel. The fibrous sponge material soaked up huge amounts of water, compromising the roof within days.
The rebuild will give Fuller’s team a chance to totally modernize the back-of-house, putting a more efficient kitchen into half as much square footage. “We’re going to take the other half and introduce a really exciting new space,” he said, referring to a 3,500-square-foot banquet room for special events, secluded from guests in the bar and dining rooms.
Fuller introduced “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, who will be spearheading the design of this new addition. “His approach is like my style when it comes to creative development,” Fuller said, citing Allsmiller’s “appreciation and love for The Mai-Kai.”
“He’s going to be a great creative director for the project,” Fuller said. “All aspects of the aesthetics of the venue are in extremely good hands with Typhoon Tommy.”
The new addition and its A-frame roof will be designed to fit in with the historic attributes of the rest of the structure. The hope is that this will offset the loss of the Bora Bora Room, a vacant building that eats up valuable space in the path of the new entrance road.
“We’re petitioning the city to remove it,” Fuller explained. “It’s still subject to historic consideration.” However, the building was knocked off its foundation by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and hasn’t been used since, except for storage.
“Removing it is going to make a world of difference, for the guest experience, for all of us. And for the sustainability of the project moving forward,” Fuller said. “I believe we’ll do an extremely adequate job in replacing it with the new event space.”
The Mai-Kai’s historic status creates some hurdles in the approval process with the city. Fuller said his team must adhere to Oakland Park’s historic property rules, but “it really only impacts the exterior, even though the most priceless possessions are inside the venue.”
Fuller said The Mai-Kai is a rare instance of a historic property that’s also a great business. Many sit vacant and unable to operate, he said.
“For us to maintain a property of this scale and this size, and to be able to deliver the experience we want to deliver upon its reopening, we need to be able to make the moves we want to make.” This includes the event space and rerouting the driveway.
When The Mai-Kai is back open and operating as planned, he said, there’s no reason it can’t be successful for generations to come.
“We’re going to be able to generate the revenue to be able to support the production of the music and band, the costuming, and maintaining a 26,000-square-foot building on a 3-acre site without really charging a cover,” he said. “The latest price to get into Disney World is $140.”
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