As the renovation of The Mai-Kai reaches a crucial point outdoors, work is progressing on the restoration of the historic South Florida restaurant’s guest areas alongside a near total rebuild of the back-of-house facilities.
It’s a two-pronged effort overseen by Kern Mattei, a second-generation employee who grew up at The Mai-Kai and is now in his 30th year as manager. An October 2020 roof collapse took out the massive kitchen and back bar. A change in ownership in September 2021 kick-started the renovation efforts, which now enter the final phases.
On the job since early 2022, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has brought both his passion for historic Polynesian design and his vast experiece as a theme park scenic artist to The Mai-Kai’s many restoration projects. For most of this year, he’s been joined by another central Florida artist, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, creating a well-oiled machine that can seemingly handle any task, no matter how challenging.
They were joined this summer by another multifaceted artist who has been crucial in helping them use inventive techniques to restore some of the areas most in need of TLC. Along with the woodworking crew tasked with repairing all of The Mai-Kai’s damaged walls and ceiling, Conrad Teheiura Itchener is a key member of the team bringing the Tiki temple back to life.
Meanwhile, the new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller of Barlington Group is pumping all of its resources into modernizing the infrastructure, from new roofs to a revamped electrical grid and air-handling system. Helping Mattei rebuild the kitchen and back-of-house is Fuller’s sister company, Mad Room Hospitality, which oversees other historic restaurants including Miami’s Ball & Chain.
Following is an extensive recap of all the work done inside The Mai-Kai since our last stories in early July. Meanwhile, a related story contains up-to-the minute news on the reimagination of the parking lot as well as a projected reopening date.
* The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog at Tiki Oasis
* The Mai-Kai renovations, May-June 2023: Historic restaurant’s new infrastructure begins to take shape
* Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)
SAMOA ROOM: One of the original dining areas meticulously restored
Over the past six months, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly have methodically brought many of The Mai-Kai’s elaborately themed dining rooms back to life: New Guinea, Hawaii, Moorea, and the lower areas of Tonga. But the completion of the one of the oldest dining areas, Samoa, remained elusive.
In a previous story, we covered work in Samoa dating back to May, including the restoration of a notable lamp and details from 1956 hidden behind the infamous “shrunken head” shadowboxes. But the room wasn’t finished until late summer due to a hold-up in the delivery of materials as well as electrical issues.
By late August, new seagrass matting had been installed throughout the ceiling and manager Kern Mattei was adjusting the lighting. “The whole room is pretty much done,” Allsmiller said.
It was an arduous job, however. The installation of the matting took an entire week. “It kicked our ass,” Allsmiller said. A few details remain, he said, including adding a “nicotine stain” so the new matting matches the older areas.
While the matting took a while to acquire, it will serve a dual purpose. It’s the same material used in the ceiling of the outdoor Lanai. Interestingly, Allsmiller noted, it was also used in the Chinese oven area, buried in the concrete.
In Samoa, wall matting and trim were restored, most of the lamps were refurbished, and the lighting on the northern wall was repaired. The painters will come in later to do the finishing work.
The designers also faced a dilemma in restoring the walls. They couldn’t find a specific size of matting, so they had to shift things around to achieve symmetry.
“It’s been 20 years since it looked this good,” Allsmiller said, adding that they still need to add new tapa and return the lamps to either side of the shadowboxes.
Mattei also spent some time tweaking the lighting. Even after the lamps were refurbished, he felt that the room was still too dark so he bumped up the brightness in some of the bulbs.
“It was very dark,” Mattei said, explaining that the room needs to have a “dining feel” rather than a “lounge feel.”
LAMPS & LIGHTS: It’s all about the details
For more than six months, we’ve been documenting the seemingly never-ending task of reviving The Mai-Kai’s vintage hanging lamps, many dating back more than a half century and created by the craftsmen at the revered Oceanic Arts. If it seems like there are hundreds of such lamps, that’s because there is.
Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller estimates that more than 180 lamps inside and outside The Mai-Kai are being refurbished in some way. Some require simple repairs, but many are being rebuilt from scratch after decades of decay. While these mid-century lamps are now considered works of art, they likely weren’t built with materials designed to last as long as they have.
Until recently, the herculean work of Allsmiller and Scott “Flounder” Scheidly has been available for viewing in person only at The Mai-Kai. But in early August, guests of Tiki Oasis in San Diego were treated to a showing of newly created lamps from artists across the country, including one of Allsmiller’s designs from The Mai-Kai.
The replicated vintage lamp on display in the four-day lamp show during the Aug. 2-6 event was actually a duplicate since it was sold along with all the other pieces in the exhibit. Allsmiller created two identical lamps based on one he found languishing in the Tahiti Room.
The lamp was covered in burlap, a measure used over the years to make emergency repairs. But this quick fix only dimmed the light and muted the original look. The duplicate lamps are “not quite the same, but the same idea,” Allsmiller said.
He based his replicas on old Oceanic Arts blueprints, using the same materials on both. This includes some vintage flower-pattern tapa that was removed from The Mai-Kai’s now-demolished Bora Bora building.
In an indication of the popularity of Tiki lamps, all of those on display sold on the first day. Allsmiller’s creation fetched the most ($1,500), but perhaps it was under-priced considering its lineage.
* More coverage of Tiki Oasis
We’re sure the lamp found a good home. But if you aren’t a friend of the lucky owner, you can visit its duplicate when it returns to the Tahiti Room and The Mai-Kai reopens.
After completing the lamps in the Moorea and Samoa rooms, Allsmiller and Scheidly returned from Tiki Oasis to concentrate on the Tahiti Room. We caught Allsmiller re-creating the wall lamps:
Meanwhile, a lamp that was repaired in July was back in its spot high in the gift shop’s upper level. When Allsmiller and Scheidly found it, the burlap covering was so thick you couldn’t see any light coming through the bottom.
It was in good shape otherwise, so Allsmiller came up with a concept to “make a really cool bottom for it” so “the light will show through really well.” You can now spot the renovated lamp high in the rafters of the gift shop:
Before and after: Here are more examples of the restoration work of Allsmiller and Scheidly on some of The Mai-Kai’s many hanging lamps:
After more than a year working with the lamps, Allsmiller said he’s noticing some trends. All of the lamps that have printed plans from Oceanic Arts are what he calls “light bulb style” and made out of sticks of rattan. But there are also a lot of lamps made with plywood and particle board in a different style. He’s not sure if these are from Oceanic Arts or a different company.
There’s more to the lighting at The Mai-Kai than just the historic hanging lamps. Manager Kern Mattei continues to adjust the glow coming off fixtures throughout the restaurant.
The lanterns in the hallway that leads to the gift shop and restrooms have new LED bulbs that create a more realistic flickering effect. This new style is brighter than the old incandescent bulbs, so Mattei adds a smoky frosting to the glass to keep the light dim and the effect realistic.
“The frosting mellows it out,” he said. While keeping the old-school effect, Mattei is always seeking out the newest technology. “These are the newest LEDs from GE,” he said.
The bulbs and fixtures in the men’s restroom and The Molokai bar are getting the same treatment since they have the same nautical style. Mattei said he comes back at night to test the lights to “make sure they’re not too bright.”
One other detail worth mentioning along with the lighting is the enhancement of the ceiling fans. While they’re not vintage pieces, they’re still getting care and attention.
The fans were installed in some of the dining areas in the early 2000s when the air-conditioning started to become overwhelmed. That will no longer be an issue with the new AC system, but most of the fans will remain. They keep air circulating and add a bit of kinetic energy and old-time feel.
Inside, generic fans are being replaced by new versions adorned with designs from the island each dining room represents. They feature stylized moisture-resistant blades and a band of artwork around the base.
Outside, a new style of fan will be added to the Lanai featuring waterproof, plastic blades. Mattei said these will include lights to illuminate the tables in the cozy dining area outside of the Tahiti Room and adjacent to the Tiki garden.
MOLDED PANELS & TRIM: Walls, ceilings get fresh look
In July, a fresh face joined The Mai-Kai’s artistic team to help restore some of the most detailed areas of the interior that had fallen into disrepair. Conrad Teheiura Itchener, however, is no stranger to The Mai-Kai.
This jack-of-all-trades is a prolific South Florida musician who used to perform in the Polynesian Islander Revue house band. He’s also a talented craftsman and Tiki carver who previously worked on prototypes of new shades for The Mai-Kai’s refurbished table lamps.
As it turns out, he’s also a exceptional mold-maker. Itchener used his skills to create silicone molds that he then used to make new panels and trim out of foam for the gift shop and women’s restroom. The ornate wall and ceiling decor – made of heavy plaster – was used extensively in those areas as part of the 1970 refurbishment by noted restaurant designer George Nakashima.
What’s now the gift shop (aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post) was created during this period and named the Bangkok Room after its Asian theme. The decor carried into the adjacent restroom, similar to how The Molokai bar’s nautical theme extends into the men’s restroom. The women’s room is so elaborate that it’s been used for numerous photo shoots by models and was a finalist in the America’s Best Restroom Awards in 2014.
Itchener consulted with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and manager Kern Mattei, and they decided to replace the damaged plaster with panels and trim made from a relatively light but very hard foam that will allow them to easily fix even the highest and most hard-to-reach areas in the gift shop. “We’ll be able to cut them and fix all the holes,” Mattei said.
The gift shop has “lots of architectural elements,” Itchener said. “The floral panel is used throughout both spots but the crisscross, pirate ship theme is just in the gift shop.” When the installation is complete, everything will be painted to look exactly like the original walls and ceiling.
Guests won’t be able to tell the difference between a restored element from a nearby 50-year-old original. “The painters will paint them to match whatever room they go into,” he said.
From his work area inside The Molokai bar near the back entrance (to allow for proper ventilation), Itchener spent most of July on what he called the most tedious task: creating the molds for the various panels and trim designs. But soon after, he started cranking out finished pieces.
Itchener explained the process: He used a “self-skinning” 9-pound foam so it “grabs whatever surface texture you have.” It’s sturdy and waterproof, plus it has rigidness so it gives a nice finish.
Despite the name, it’s not at all like styrofoam. Allsmiller, the former theme park art director who has worked with similar materials, said he prefers to call it “rigid foam” or “hard foam.”
“It’s amazing for sealants,” Allsmiller said. It’s also light and easy to use, much to the delight of the woodworking crew doing the installation. They use a simple “liquid nails” type of adhesive.
On Aug. 11, I watched Itchener pour wet foam into a mold, then clamp it with wood. He said he waits around 30 minutes for it to harden. “It sets in about 20 minutes and it’s hard within 2 hours,” he said. “I can get several runs out throughout the day.”
By the end of the month, he was nearly finished. A painting crew from Colonial Decorators arrived to put the base coat on all of the molded pieces. They’ll return later to add finishing paint once they’re installed. Stacks of finished panels and trim sit in The Molokai, awaiting installation.
Wrapping up the project, Itchener molded some of the smaller, decorative pieces that are part of the gift shop’s floral trim. These are complicated pieces that required a two-part mold. He also molded new stylized posts for the porte-cochère, where they will replace old rotted wood above the doorway.
As the attention of the restoration crew turned to the porte-cochère in September, Itchener took on an important new task. He’s using his molding skills to assist Allsmiller in turning the maze of metal beams into a forest of faux bamboo.
Check out the accompanying story for photos and details on the porte-cochère work.
MORE IMAGES: Molds help Mai-Kai fix vintage decorative elements
Photos by Hurricane Hayward (unless noted)
WOODWORK: Anonymous workers set the stage for creative artists
One of the most unheralded crews working on The Mai-Kai project is a two-man team of woodworkers from Miami dubbed “The Ramons” by creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller (both are named Ramon). Hired to shore up all of the damaged wood both inside and outside the building, the pair has been invaluable in quickly and skillfully moving from job to job, expertly fixing and enhancing walls, ceilings and other areas throughout the property.
On Sept. 14, Allsmiller said the pair is “killing it in the gift shop,” also praising their recent work in the women’s restroom. In both areas, they’re also responsible for cutting and placing the new panels and trim made by Conrad Teheiura Itchener (see above).
Allsmiller called them “a blessing,” allowing the artists to concentrate on the more creative aspects of the restoration. Allsmiller also showed the pair how to finish their own work, making new wood look old and rustic by carving and burning it.
As the summer winds to a close, they’re also working on the ceiling in the Lanai and rear outdoor hallway that wraps around the Tahiti and Samoa dining rooms, one of the last major areas with decayed wood in need of replacement.
When they’re done, the Lanai ceiling will be covered in new seagrass matting. Previously, it was half metal and half matting. In the hallway, they fixed the corrugated metal ceiling and replaced rotted wood.
The men are valuable beyond their woodworking skills. On Sept. 14, Allsmiller was discussing a future project with one of the Ramons. The Mai-Kai recently secured a large supply of vintage mirror tiles from the 1960s that will be used to replace the worn and broken mirrors throughout the women’s restroom.
Cutting and placing the tiles will be a precise and tedious process. Not a problem for the Ramons, the busy bees of The Mai-Kai.
BACK OF HOUSE: New kitchen begins to take shape
Rebuilding a massive commercial kitchen and infrastructure from the ground up is a daunting task in the best-case scenario. At The Mai-Kai, the job is complicated by many factors. The facilities are being downsized to fit into a smaller space, a new electrical system is still not operational, and the restaurant’s history must be considered at every turn.
Despite this, the build-out of the new back of house appears to be moving along at a steady pace. By mid-September, walls around new staff locker rooms and a new special needs restroom were getting insulation, and drywall was stacked nearby ready to be installed.
You can see the progress in the photo above and compare it to the images from May and June.
Over the previous weeks, extensive plumbing and electric jobs were done and approved. Framework for doorways and walls was going up everywhere. “They’re cranking stuff out,” manager Kern Mattei said.
As part of the new design, the back of house will follow the beamline of the roofs. This means the ceilings will be higher and angled, not low and flat like the previous drop ceilings installed in the 1970 expansion. If you also consider the vintage slate tile that was uncovered early in the project, it appears that even the non-guest areas at The Mai-Kai are getting a retro look and feel.
In a major milestone, the first piece of new kitchen equipment was installed in August. It tooks weeks to fully hook up the giant hood for three state-of-the-art ovens. The project included a new ventilation system and a cooling unit that will blow cold air and suck hot air out.
These new combination ovens (aka “combi ovens”) use three methods of cooking in one appliance: convection, steam, and a combination of steam and convection. Convection, or the circulation of dry heat, can be used to bake bread or roast meats. The steam function delicately poaches fish, steams rice, or cooks vegetables so they have the perfect texture. When using the combination function, both steam and convection work together to produce results that are moist, flavorful, and have minimal shrinkage. Mai-Kai management is confident that this new equipment will vastly improve the speed and volume of the food it can produce compared to the old equipment in the former 1970s-era kitchen.
The kitchen won’t be the only area of the operation to take advantage of modern technology. In August, we ran into Darius Green from Mad Room Hospitality, who was on site planning the wiring for a new point-of-sale computer system. It will mainly use wi-fi, Mattei said, but some key stations will be wired to allow for faster speed.
In July, six new breaker boxes were installed in the center of the kitchen. Each will control a different area, making this the nerve center of the entire restaurant. Unfortunately, electricians cannot power up the new system until FPL restores full service. The Mai-Kai has been operating on generator power since June 5.
The lack of full power and the extensive work on the infrastructure has also curtailed (for now) The Mai-Kai’s takeout cocktails and merchandise, last offered for the July Fourth weekend. The expanding construction project has taken over the back-of-house prep area in the separate Molokai bar.
The lounge, located in the front of the building away from the kitchen, is also due for an overhaul of its back bar and small kitchen. Mattei reports that the old hood was repaired, but most of the other equipment will be removed and replaced. As soon as its operational, we hope to see takeout cocktails return, along with new merchandise.
It should also be noted that The Mai-Kai’s famous main service bar is also being rebuilt from the ground-up, featuring all new equipment. We have been taking extensive photos of the progress, but haven’t shared any (until now).
This is partly to keep the mystique of the hallowed ground where original mixologist Mariano Lucidine created The Mai-Kai’s cocktail program and launched his iconic menu, featuring classics such as the Barrel O’ Rum, Black Magic, and Derby Daiquiri. Our plan is to share the construction photos later, when the bar is more fully realized and we can reveal many new details.
Following tradition, the bar will still be located in the back of house, unseen by most guests. It’s moving from its old location since that area of the kitchen was damaged in the October 2020 roof collapse and won’t be rebuilt until phase 2 of the renovation plan.
The new location is adjacent to the new kitchen in an area that used to be a staff locker room. However, we believe that this footprint, just south of the gift shop, may actually be very near the original 1956 back bar before it was relocated in the 1970 expansion.
The one key change in The Mai-Kai’s new “back bar” will be a move away from a utilitarian look and toward a more traditional front-of-house Tiki bar. It’s a hybrid design, since it still must function as a service bar that handles hundreds of guests, but a new design from creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller will give the entire room a new look.
There will be wood, thatch and Polynesian design elements throughout. The historic rum collection will return, but it will be housed in a special display case along with vintage mugs and other artifacts. Tour groups, special guests and others getting a peek at the area will see the bartenders in action in a much more distinctive environment.
Attendees at the Tiki Oasis symposium “Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai” on Aug. 5 got a sneak preview of Allsmiller’s designs, along with a photo of the bar under construction. You can see the photo at left below, along with an exclusive new image of Mattei showing off one of the new bartender workstations. This view will cease to exist soon as workers prepare to put the wall back up.
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