Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai update (January 2024): Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer

The multimillion-dollar reimagination of The Mai-Kai is an unprecedented project in its size and scope as a local and national historic landmark restaurant. Since worked kicked off in 2022, projects have touched nearly every corner of the 67-year-old, 2.7-acre property in South Florida.

Jump below: Latest news on the refurbishments | Timeline of current projects

The first phase of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai is expected to be completed in summer 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
The first phase of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai is expected to be completed in summer 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)

Now, as 2024 brings us into the home stretch, interest is building not only for updates on the status of the renovations, but also for news on a potential reopening date. Closed since an October 2020 roof collapse irreparably damaged the 1970s-era kitchen, The Mai-Kai is on track to have guests return this year. The only question is exactly when?

Unfortunately, that question will probably not be answered with accuracy until it’s much closer to the finish line. Project timelines can change on a dime, and most of the final hurdles will be left in the hands of inspectors and government officials in Broward County and the city of Oakland Park.

Until then, we’ll take any news we can get. We were able to confirm the accuracy of the latest projection, shared on the restaurant’s official Instagram page: “We are now looking at this summer,” said the comment on a Jan. 23 posting in response to questions about the reopening date.

Recent coverage
* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
* Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision

Modern Caribbean Rum
Artist Scott "Flounder" Scheidly shared photos on Instagram of his work cleaning up one of The Mai-Kai's last remaining Oceanic Arts wooden masks
Artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly shared photos on Instagram of his work cleaning up one of The Mai-Kai’s last remaining Oceanic Arts wooden masks. “Luckily this was protected under the porte-cochère out front but will be relocated to the inside for preservation,” he wrote.

Organizers of The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender in nearby Pompano Beach, are making two sets of plans for their June 6-9 event. Plan A would include events at a fully reopened Mai-Kai, while Plan B would feature limited access and sneak previews, perhaps cocktails and entertainment. The general consensus among Hukilau organizers, which include Mai-Kai investor Richard Oneslager and public relations director Pia Dahlquist, is that there’s a 50-50 chance of either plan happening. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more news on The Hukilau, which has included The Mai-Kai in its festivities since its second year in 2003.

In the meantime, we made our first visit of the new year to the property that straddles the Oakland Park border with Fort Lauderdale on Federal Highway. You can find our observations and photos below, along with updates from manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller.

As noted in our 2023 recap, we’re restricted from taking photos of the interior restorations. However, this story includes images shared by Allsmiller and fellow artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly on their Instagram pages. We hope to be able to share more photos of their detailed work inside the 26,000-square-foot restaurant as it gets closer to the reopening. You can also see extensive coverage of their past work in the story archive.

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JANUARY 2024: Infrastructure work goes underground as artists continue restoring Mai-Kai interior

Crews install new lights atop the poles in The Mai-Kai parking lot in January (left). Plans approved by the city of Oakland Park in 2023 call for the poles to be finished with Polynesian artwork. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, rendering by Perry-Becker Design)
Crews install new lights atop the poles in The Mai-Kai parking lot in January (left). Plans approved by the city of Oakland Park in 2023 call for the poles to be finished with Polynesian artwork. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, rendering by Perry-Becker Design)

During our visit in late January, the first thing we noticed was workers using a scissor lift to access the top of the tall light poles in the back parking lot along Northeast 20th Avenue, which runs parallel to Federal Highway. Mattei later told us that new heads with LED lamps were being added to the existing poles. The bulbs will be softer, he said, cutting down on “light pollution.” Later, the poles will be finished with detailed Polynesian theming.

Mattei also confirmed that the new 8-foot wall that runs along the west side of the property now features its final color. The outside will be plain, he said, but the inside of the wall will feature a new Polynesian design by Allsmiller. Later, we caught up with the Orlando artist for more details.

Allsmiller said he’s working on a stencil for a 3-foot graphic that will stretch across the entire wall, around a foot down from the top. He said it will be similar to the stencil used on the beam extensions you can see on the front of the A-frame along Federal Highway.

The inside of The Mai-Kai's new privacy wall will include artwork by creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller that's similar to design he created for the beam projects on the front of the A-frame. The color is a variation of Disney's "go-away green." (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
The inside of The Mai-Kai’s new privacy wall will include artwork by creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller that’s similar to design he created for the beam projects on the front of the A-frame. The color is a variation of Disney’s “go-away green.” (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)

The longtime theme park designer called the color of the wall “a lighter shade of Disney’s ‘go-away green’,” a reference to one of the proprietary colors used in Disney parks to disguise infrastructure and blend in with the environment.

“If we have to deal with this monolith of a wall, let’s at least not let it stay in your memory,” he said of their intention. While they’re limited by space, he said there will also be designated “green zones” for trees and plants that will enhance the area. As it stands now, the parking lot is still a major construction zone, a large swath of dirt that is continually being dug up by various crews.

Mattei explained the current projects: “Electricians ran underground wires to get power to the poles. Now the plumbers are running lines for the grease traps and drains. Next, we have to do gas lines for the torches in the big roundabout. Everybody’s taking turns.” In addition, a different team of plumbers will be tasked with running irrigation lines to the front from an irrigation pump in the back, he said.

The Mai-Kai's back parking lot has been in a constant state of excavation by plumbing and electrical crews. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
The Mai-Kai’s back parking lot has been in a constant state of excavation by plumbing and electrical crews. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)

The plumbers are taking a unique approach to upgrading the historic property, making sure not to disturb any of the existing building … including the toilets. “They’re working under the building in tunnels instead of digging up the floor,” Mattei said.

They dug a tunnel under the building leading to the men’s and women’s restrooms, Mattei said. All the old pipes were removed and new ones added. In the men’s room, they removed the toilets to upgrade the plumbing, then put the vintage green fixtures all back in place.

The crews are now working under The Molokai, he said in late January. The lounge’s back bar was stripped down to the bare walls and floor as part of a total upgrade with new infrastructure and equipment. This back-of-house area dated back to The Mai-Kai’s 1970 expansion, so it was much in needed of updating.

Rock work that was patched in front of The Mai-Kai awaits finishing texture and paint. The water features will be filled after new plumbing is added. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
Rock work that was patched in front of The Mai-Kai awaits finishing texture and paint. The water features will be filled after new plumbing is added. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)

You can see some of that activity around The Molokai from the sidewalk in front of The Mai-Kai. We spotted what appeared to be the tunnel that goes beneath the building, a new access bridge across the water feature, plus other work in progress.

Along the front of the property, all the ponds and water features were completely drained as the plumbing is upgraded. The patches on the rock work are extensive, awaiting finishing touches. Mattei said that these rocks along with the ones in the Tiki garden are waiting for a specialist to come in and add more texture, then paint and age them.

He also mentioned a new project in the works for back garden that will also be visible from the street. The old generic fencing that runs along the east and south sides of the garden will be replaced with a new fence. They’re currently kicking around design ideas, Mattei and Allsmiller said.

Creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller documented the creation of a new lamp for The Mai-Kai based on an old drawing from Oceanic Arts, the legendary restaurant decor outfitter. He found no record of the lamp ever being made. (Instagram photos)
Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller documented the creation of a new lamp for The Mai-Kai based on an old drawing from Oceanic Arts, the legendary restaurant decor outfitter. He found no record of the lamp ever being made. (Instagram photos)

Allsmiller and Scheidly have also been busy inside the building, continuing to replicate vintage hanging lamps. A reel shared on Instagram by Allsmiller shows how he created a new lamp from a drawing found in The Mai-Kai archives.

He determined that this particular design, which was on the original order form for lamps from Oceanic Arts, was never made. “I have never seen one of these in the wild so I knew I had to try my hand at it,” he said. “This one was a beast but it is beautiful and I couldn’t be happier!”

The showroom stage was resurfaced and refinished with new glaze on top, Mattei said. The south vertical side of the stage was also refurbished with vintage artwork. It’s one of many new details to look for when the restaurant reopens. You can see some of the stage and artwork in the lamp photos below.

Photos of new lamps created by artist Scott "Flounder" Scheidly were shared on Instagram.
Photos of new lamps created by artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly were shared on Instagram.

Scheidly posted photos on Instagram of an array of new lamps he recently built. “Some of these have spot lights in the bottom for over the service kitchen bar but also light up in the top portion,” he said.

The hidden back bar, which traditionally had no special theming since it was typically not seen by guests, is getting full-blown Mai-Kai decor similar to the front of house. Plans call for a porthole in the gift shop that will allow guests to peek in on the bartenders in their new themed space.

Mattei elaborated on Scheidly’s lamp designs, saying the down-lighting will be especially useful in the bar. Each bartender workstation will have a vintage lamp overhead, he said. When I asked Allsmiller whether they were duplicating existing dining room lamps or coming up with new designs, he said: “We’re just winging it,” using what they’ve learned from dealing with hundreds of Mai-Kai lamps.

Some of the outdoor Tiki statues cast in cement by artist Will Anders. The Mai-Kai showed this image during a January 2023 meeting of Oakland Park's Historic Preservation Board.
Some of the outdoor Tiki statues cast in cement by artist Will Anders. The Mai-Kai showed this image during a January 2023 meeting of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board.

With the exception of the kitchen itself, the entire back of house is getting a makeover to feature similar Polynesian theming. Matting and bamboo is going up on all the walls, Mattei said, and one wall will feature a tribute to old employees featuring historic black-and-white photos. Some areas include new hand-carved wood trim, designed by Allsmiller.

Work is also underway by artist Will Anders, who has been recreating The Mai-Kai’s smaller outdoor Tiki carvings in cement for decades. Many of the originals were wood carvings from Oceanic Arts and perhaps even personally brought back from the South Pacific by founding owners Bob and Jack Thornton. Noting the damage caused by the brutal South Florida weather, Bob Thornton wisely had molds made so they could be cast in cement.

You can spot many of these cement Tiki idols from the walking path through the garden and via the windows in The Molokai. But even these sturdy replacements eventually fall victim to the elements, so they are periodically replaced.

Anders is casting them in concrete, then adding a base coat of paint. He then passes them along to Allsmiller, who adds the decorative paint and finishing touches.

Related: Listen to a Mai-Kai walking tour featuring Will Anders (Texas Tiki Podcast, 2019)

A view of The Mai-Kai looking south from Federal Highway. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
A view of The Mai-Kai looking south from Federal Highway. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
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TIMELINE: Permits show projects approved through July

As stated at the top, it’s impossible to project a reopening timeframe beyond the stated estimate of summer. That season officially kicks off June 20, but there are hopes that The Mai-Kai will be open in time for The Hukilau in early June.

As the months go by, we’ll monitor The Mai-Kai’s building permits applied for with the city of Oakland Park for information that could at least give us a better idea of the estimated timeline of specific projects. These government approvals can often dictate the speed of any building project.

As of early February, there were nine permits in the city database that were being actively updated. We’re listing them below in order of the expiration dates. But note that these dates can always be extended. We’ve also noticed in the past that the online site is not always updated in a timely manner. One other note: Don’t dwell on the “percentage complete” number. It refers specifically to the permitting process, not necessarily the progress of the work itself.

Set to expire in March are two permits that cover a new fire sprinkler system (75% complete) and new dumpster enclosure (55% complete).

The removal of the Bora Bora building in April cleared the way for the reimagination of The Mai-Kai's parking lot. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The removal of the Bora Bora building in April cleared the way for the reimagination of The Mai-Kai’s parking lot. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

By April, the parking lot should be in the final stages of its reconfiguration. A permit (currently 50% complete) covering drainage and new asphalt, among other things, expires April 25. Also expiring that month are permits for a new fire alarm system (62% complete), along with the long-standing permit for interior renovations (50% complete). The latter has been extended several times. It most recently passed a water service inspection on Jan. 26.

June 3 is the key date on which three permits are set to expire. They cover fire suppression (54% complete), the kitchen hood system (62% complete), and rooftop air-handling system (41% complete). It would appear that these approvals would clear the way for The Mai-Kai to start running the kitchen and opening for guests.

One last permit doesn’t expire until July 17: An over-arching alteration/addition that will see the build-out of a new bar under the porte-cochère. Currently 29% approved, the permit includes “food services, outdoor bar, plumbing, and electric.” It’s also the newest permit, issued on Jan. 19, which may explain its later expiration date.

While this information offers no revelations, it shows that the work continues to progress through the permitting process, with most projects estimated to be completed by early summer.

MORE COVERAGE: News, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

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MORE ON THE MAI-KAI

The Mai-Kai official sites and social media
MaiKai.com | Facebook | Instagram

RECENT COVERAGE FROM THE ATOMIC GROG

JANUARY 2024

The Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
Everything you need to know about the ongoing restoration, plus a comprehensive compilation of 2023 highlights.
The year in review: 2023 timeline, past coverage

DECEMBER 2023

Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision
Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision
A new driveway and lushly landscaped parking will completely immerse guests in a South Seas fantasy world, just as the original owners envisioned.

NOVEMBER 2023

Mai-Kai update, fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight
Mai-Kai update, fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight
While multiple construction projects are underway inside and outside the historic property, a small team of craftsmen is bringing the vintage decor back to life.

SEPTEMBER 2023

Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening
Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening
The final phase of the multimillion-dollar renovation kicks off as artists and craftsmen restore and transform the signature porte-cochère.

Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul (summer 2023 recap)
Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul
Work is progressing on the historic South Florida restaurant’s guest areas alongside a near total rebuild of the back-of-house facilities.

SEE ALL THE PAST STORIES ON THE RENOVATIONS

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SPECIAL FEATURE

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Hurricane Hayward reviews and rates the historic restaurant’s current and past tropical drinks, plus reveals a treasure trove of ancestor and exclusive tribute recipes.

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