Modern Caribbean Rum

Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline

The Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline

The artists, craftsmen and management working on the multimillion-dollar reimagination of The Mai-Kai tied a bow on a busy year in late 2023, finishing several projects and taking on ambitious new ones. As the total transformation of the grounds outside becomes a top priority, the indoor guest spaces of the historic restaurant continue to receive careful restoration with no detail left untended.

Jump below: 2023 timeline, past coverage

The Mai-Kai facade now includes traditional Polynesian designs by "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller on the trim surrounding the beam extensions. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2023)
The Mai-Kai facade now includes traditional Polynesian designs by “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller on the trim surrounding the beam extensions. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2023)

Meanwhile, manager Kern Mattei is preparing for the completion of new back-of-house facilities, including a totally rebuilt kitchen and two back bars. We caught up with Mattei for an update just before Christmas. Following are his insights on what’s happening on multiple fronts.

Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller added new stenciled artwork to all of the fascia board trim around the front of the building, stretching from the left of the A-frame near the Tahiti Room all the way to The Molokai bar. You can clearly see the restored trim from the sidewalk along Federal Highway.

When the beam extensions were restored in September, Allsmiller said he wanted to design “something a little more traditional” for the trim. He said he tried to create something based more in Marquesan and Hawaiian art than the previous artwork and graphics, which were likely Polynesian Pop designs by George Nakashima during the 1970 renovation.

Recent coverage
* Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision
* Fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight
* Past news, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

A refurbished fence now stands outside The Molokai lounge, directly to the left of The Mai-Kai's main entrance. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2023)
A refurbished fence now stands outside The Molokai lounge, directly to the left of The Mai-Kai’s main entrance. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2023)

Walking the Federal Highway sidewalk, you can also see a lot of touch-up work being done on the rock work. After the repairs are done, they will get a textured finish to blend in so you won’t even know they were repaired.

Nearby, a new privacy fence has gone up along the northern windows of The Molokai. Totally refurbished and painted green like the original, it features a new access gate with a slightly different design. As much wood as possible was salvaged from the old fence, Mattei said.

While it’s designed to look jagged and ragged, the new fence is totally rebuilt, better looking and much stronger. Mattei said it still needs the old artifacts added, plus a new ledge along the front. The window water effects are still a work in progress, he said.

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway includes the new designs on the fascia board trim, plus repairs in progress on the surrounding rock work. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2023)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway includes the new designs on the fascia board trim, plus repairs in progress on the surrounding rock work. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2023)

Mattei noted that similar repairs to the rock work are happening inside the Tiki garden, where guests enjoy the lush paths, waterfalls and vintage carvings. Crew members who specialize in stucco are adding patches. Allsmiller will then add the proper texture, and he or a painting crew will do the finishing.

For much of December, Allsmiller and fellow Florida artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly concentrated their efforts on The Mai-Kai’s showroom, home of the Polynesian Islander Revue, the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii). Allsmiller spent two weeks refurbishing the stage, carving new decorative trim out of redwood.

The stage is now back to its original glory, Mattei said, including the parquet floor. A Polynesian show was first added almost exactly 62 years ago in early 1962. One of the original performers, Mireille Thornton, remains the show choreographer and costume designer in addition to her role as matriarch of the founding Thornton family.

A view of the upper reaches of The Mai-Kai's main A-frame over the Tonga Room in October 2023 (left). Refurbishment of the lamps began in December, along with a restoration of the showroom stage. At right, a crew can be seen installing new neo panels in November. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
A view of the upper reaches of The Mai-Kai’s main A-frame over the Tonga Room in October 2023 (left). Refurbishment of the lamps began in December, along with a restoration of the showroom stage. At right, a crew can be seen installing new neo panels in November. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

Meanwhile, renovations started on the vintage lamps high under the 40-foot A-frame. Mattei said they’re using a huge scaffolding to reach to the very top of the ceiling.

They’re fixing as many as they can in place so they don’t need to bring them all down, he said. They’re replacing bulbs and using an air brush to clean them. Some are just dusted while others are being refurbished.

Scheidly did a lot of the work on the lamps while Allsmiller worked on the stage. He later told us he spent an entire week up on the scaffolding, enjoying a view of The Mai-Kai from a vantage point very few see.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline”

Minimalist Tiki

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

The multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai reached a turning point this fall when multiple construction projects were underway, both inside and outside the historic property in South Florida. These key elements – the rebuilding of the back-of-house kitchen and bar, plus the reimagination of the parking lot – are the last major pieces of the puzzle that need to completed before a projected early 2024 reopening can become reality.

Jump below: Porte-cochère | Showroom | Chinese ovens | Other projects

The area above the entrance doors was completely refurbished by The Mai-Kai's artistic team. The vintage fiberglass panels were restored, new artwork was created for the large beams, the wooden rail pins were replaced with sculpted hard foam, and a new LED lighting package was added. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Oct. 20, 2023)
The area above the entrance doors was completely refurbished by The Mai-Kai’s artistic team. The vintage fiberglass panels were restored, new artwork was created for the large beams, the wooden rail pins were replaced with sculpted hard foam, and a new LED lighting package was added. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Oct. 20, 2023)

But despite all this hubbub, the artists who are bringing the design and decor of the vintage restaurant back to life remain focused on their many highly detailed tasks. Working in and around the construction zones is merely a day at the office for creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow craftsmen, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly and Conrad Teheiura Itchener. Meanwhile, manager Kern Mattei continues to handle the day-to-day operations with aplomb.

After a hot and grueling summer, everyone working inside the building got some welcome relief when the new air-conditioning system finally roared to life in the fall after being installed in July. Most of the building had been without AC since the roof collapse in October 2020 that triggered the closing and eventual sale of The Mai-Kai to the Barlington Group and a new ownership team that partnered with the founding Thornton family.

The rewiring of the 67-year-old building was an epic task for electricians. Power was out for months during the summer, awaiting Florida Power & Light crews scheduled to make the restaurant’s six new breaker boxes operational. Power was eventually restored in early October. Then, on Oct. 12, vents were blasting cold air into the vintage Molokai bar almost exactly three years after the closing. By early November, the showroom, Tonga Room and the gift shop were also being cooled as the electricians started bringing other parts of the building online.

NEXT: Work begins on reimagination of The Mai-Kai entry experience
* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
MORE COVERAGE: News, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

A major piece of decor returned from storage to The Molokai bar on Nov. 2. The signature maiden masthead is one of many nautical pieces that date back to the bar's 1970 retheming using props from the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty." (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Nov. 2, 2023)
A major piece of decor returned from storage to The Molokai bar on Nov. 2. The signature maiden masthead is one of many nautical pieces that date back to the bar’s 1970 retheming using props from the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Nov. 2, 2023)

The air wasn’t the only cool thing happening in the refurbished bar. While it could be considered merely symbolic, the return of the “Molokai Maiden” masthead to her perch was a highlight not only for fans but also for the craftsmen working endless hours on the restoration. The alluring mermaid has been a longtime icon, immortalized with a memorable mug in 2014 by artist Crazy Al Evans, produced by The Swank Pad.
* Video: Maiden of the Molokai mug by Crazy Al (2014)

Most of the bar’s decor was finished earlier this year, but reinstalling the mermaid was a pretty big deal for the crew. “It really feels like The Mai-Kai’s coming back now that she’s up there,” Itchener said. He was joined by Allsmiller and Scheidly for the task, which they documented with a video on Instagram:

Following is a look at some of the major projects the artists were working on this fall.

**************************************************

The porte-cochère: Restoration meets reimagination

A nighttime view of the recently renovated lighted panels and beams under The Mai-Kai's porte-cochère. (Photo by Kern Mattei / October 2023)
A nighttime view of the recently renovated lighted panels and beams under The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère. (Photo by Kern Mattei / October 2023)

Racing against the clock to finish their work before construction crews arrived to excavate the driveway, Allsmiller and his team completed their work on the beams and vintage panels under the porte-cochère. When new LED lighting was installed and tested in October, the result was a sight not seen in decades.

Numerous hurricanes knocked out the accent lights, while the 65-year-old fiberglass panels and adjacent wooden rails over the front doors fell into disrepair over the years. The entire area was reimagined by Allsmiller and Scheidly. They were joined by Itchener, who helped turn the black metal support beams into faux bamboo.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai update, fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight”

The Mai-Kai renovations, April 2023: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts pick up steam

The Mai-Kai renovations, April 2023: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts ramp up

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.

Previous coverage
* Behind the scenes at The-Mai-Kai as restoration ramps up in 2023
* The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects

The Mai-Kai's Bora Bora building on April 14 (left), two weeks before its removal. By April 29, all that remained was an empty lot on the northeast corner of the property that will be transformed into a new entry experience. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward and Kern Mattei)
The Mai-Kai’s Bora Bora building on April 14 (left), two weeks before its removal. By April 29, all that remained was an empty lot on the northeast corner of the property that will be transformed into a new entry experience. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward and Kern Mattei)

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.

"Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller shows off a refurbished lamp at The Mai-Kai on April 25. He and fellow artist Scott "Flounder" Scheidly completed restoring all the lamps in the New Guinea dining room (right). (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
“Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller shows off a refurbished lamp at The Mai-Kai on April 25. He and fellow artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed restoring all the lamps in the New Guinea dining room (right). (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

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.

Despite all the chaos, manager Kern Mattei managed to crank out another round of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktail quarts and gallons to go on April 26-27. Depending on the progress on the electrical work., which may force the shutdown of the bar’s coolers, the next chance to enjoy the classic tropical drinks may take place only at The Hukilau weekender in June.

Photos provided by manager Kern Mattei show the progress of work on The Mai-Kai's soaring main A-frame. The roof was sealed to prevent leaks (left), then repainted.
Photos provided by manager Kern Mattei show the progress of work on The Mai-Kai’s soaring main A-frame. The roof was sealed to prevent leaks (left), then repainted.

Below are updates on all the work that took place in April, including video and many exclusive photos.

Jump to April news and updates below
* Bora Bora Room removed | Photo gallery
* Dining rooms return to vintage glory | Photo gallery
* Work begins on new bar and kitchen
* Former Molokai bar waitress remembered

UPDATES: Get the latest news and photos on our social media pages
* Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
Atomic Grog blog: Recent social media posts, past coverage

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway on April 7 after the thatching of the A-frame roofs over the rear dining rooms was completed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway on April 7 after the thatching of the A-frame roofs over the rear dining rooms was completed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.

Outside under the porte-cochère on April 14, a crew works on spackling and smoothing the wood, getting it ready to be finished. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Outside under the porte-cochère on April 14, a crew works on spackling and smoothing the wood, getting it ready to be finished. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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).

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai renovations, April 2023: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts pick up steam”

The Hukilau 2023 preview: 21st Tiki weekender in June is nirvana for cocktail fanatics

The Hukilau 2023 preview: 20th Tiki weekender in June is nirvana for cocktail fanatics

Updated June 2

The Hukilau 2023, coming June 8-11 to an oceanfront South Florida resort, is shaping up to be a Tiki cocktail lover’s dream event. In addition to sampling drinks from more than a dozen top bartenders from around the world, guests can learn from some of the industry’s preeminent experts – including Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and David Wondrich.
More below: What’s new | Music | Symposiums | Schedule | Tickets | Hotels | History | More to come
RELATED: The Hukilau announces 17 guest Tiki bar teams
NEW: The Hukilau 2023 countdown: Full schedule and updates as 21st Tiki weekender approaches

Author and Latitude 29 owner Jeff "Beachbum" Berry participates in the Tiki Tower Takeover at the Pier 66 hotel during The Hukilau 2016 in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by Go11Events.com)
Author and Latitude 29 owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry participates in the Tiki Tower Takeover at the Pier 66 hotel during The Hukilau 2016 in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

Berry, a New Orleans bar owner and influential author, is returning to The Hukilau for the first time since 2016. Wondrich, an award-winning author and cocktail historian, is back for a second straight year. They will be joined by several other past presenters making their return to the event: Cocktail Wonk blogger and author Matt Pietrek; and New York City bartender Garret Richard, who also has a book in the works.

“Having Beachbum Berry back again is real exciting for us,” said event organizer Richard Oneslager. “In the cocktail would, you couldn’t have two luminaries bigger than David Wondrich and Jeff Berry.”

To top off the boozy offerings, Spike Marble will be on hand for a live recording of his Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour video show. Also expect sponsored nightly parties, rum tastings, and more opportunities for spirited fun, all complimentary with an event pass.

The Hukilau 2023

The full lineup of bars and bartenders has yet to be announced, but we can confirm that two legendary brands – The Mai-Kai and Don the Beachcomber – will be attending and slinging drinks at pop-up bars throughout the event at the Beachcomber Resort.

The Hukilau 2023 – June 8-11 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, The Swingin’ Palms, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Dan Cunningham), symposiums (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, David Wondrich, Matt Pietrek, Garret Richard, Spike Marble, Tiki Tom-Tom), guest bars, rum tastings, pool parties, beach parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
* TheHukilau.com | Instagram | Facebook page and group

The Hukilau villagers enjoy the pool party at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach in June 2022. (Photos by Spike Marble / Spikeandthecamera.com)
The Hukilau villagers enjoy the pool party at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach in June 2022. (Photos by Spike Marble / Spikeandthecamera.com)

Rooms at the resort are already sold out, but a second nearby hotel is available at a special rate. Go to TheHukilau.com to book your accommodations and order event tickets. A South Seas pass gives “villagers,” as The Hukilau lovingly calls its attendees, reserved seating at all symposiums, plus early access to other events, a VIP lounge, plus more. The mid-level Aloha Pass covers all of the Thursday-Saturday events, plus free cocktails all weekend. The budget-friendly Palm Pass gets you into Saturday’s marketplace and pool party, plus evening bungalow parties.

Live music from some of the Tiki scene’s top surf and exotica bands is another signature of the event. Among those scheduled to appear at the daily and nightly poolside parties are California’s The Hula Girls and Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts; and Florida’s The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts and Skinny Jimmy Stingray.

Saturday’s Tiki Treasures Bazaar will feature dozens of vendors of vintage and retro-inspired goods, from mugs and aloha shirts to carvings and artwork. The Beachcomber’s scenic locale right on the Atlantic Ocean will also provide the perfect setting for daily beach parties Friday and Saturday with special entertainment. One of the parties will feature Polynesian dancers with ties to The Mai-Kai, while the other will include popular Elvis tribute performer Dan Cunningham from South Florida.

The Surfrajettes perform poolside at The Hukilau 2022 last June. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Surfrajettes perform poolside at The Hukilau 2022 last June. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Here are details on of The Hukilau’s special guests, plus info on tickets, the daily schedule and more.

What’s new: Daily beach parties, expanded facilities

Wednesday’s pre-party at Esotico Miami is not new, but it’s on the official schedule this year. Acclaimed mixologist and owner Daniele Dalla Pola is a longtime participant at The Hukilau, going back to his memorable Tiki Tower Takeover appearances in 2017 and 2018. Last year, he served up a four-course meal featuring three cocktails and a flight of three rums. Expect nothing less this year, along with a chance to check out the new adjoining Tiki speakeasy, Kaona Room.

Members of The Mai-Kai's Polynesian Islander Revue perform at The Hukilau's luau on June 10, 2022. They will return this year for an expanded beach party. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Members of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue perform at The Hukilau’s luau on June 10, 2022. They will return this year for an expanded beach party. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The Friday evening luau has been replaced on the schedule by the daily beach parties on Friday and Saturday. A special menu of food will be available for purchase during the parties.

Top-tier passholders will find an expanded South Seas Lounge, relocated to a bigger space in the main lobby area with more food, along with exclusive cocktails. Passholders will be able to fortify with a continental breakfast, lunch and hot hors d’oeuvres in the evening. The lounge will also feature meet-and-greets with event VIPs, such as artists, speakers, and musicians.

Continue reading “The Hukilau 2023 preview: 21st Tiki weekender in June is nirvana for cocktail fanatics”

BREAKING NEWS: The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects

The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects

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 Mai-Kai received final approval of three key building permits on March 3, clearing the way for major projects to begin. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 9, 2023)
The Mai-Kai received final approval of three key building permits on March 3, clearing the way for major projects to begin. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 9, 2023)

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.

Workers were busy shoring up The Mai-Kai's porte-cochère on Thursday, March 9. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Workers were busy shoring up The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère on Thursday, March 9. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.

The Atomic Grog’s exclusive coverage of The Mai-Kai renovations
* New details on restaurant’s reimagination, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele in Atlanta
* Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board OKs plans, clears way for project to move forward

A slide shown at the Oakland Park Historic Preservation Board meeting on Jan. 11, where the removal of the Bora Bora building was unanimously approved. The project is out for bid and will begin soon.
A slide shown at the Oakland Park Historic Preservation Board meeting on Jan. 11, where the removal of the Bora Bora building was unanimously approved. The project is out for bid and will begin soon.

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 1960s 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.

A view inside The Mai-Kai's former kitchen on March 9. The brown steel beams will go on the roof to support the new air-conditioning system. To the bottom right is bamboo and thatch awaiting installation on the A-frame roofs. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A view inside The Mai-Kai’s former kitchen on March 9. The brown steel beams will go on the roof to support the new air-conditioning system. To the bottom right is bamboo and thatch awaiting installation on the A-frame roofs. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* 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.

Continue reading “BREAKING NEWS: The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects”

Top 10 Tiki stories of 2022 include legends lost, hope for the future

Top 10 Tiki stories of 2022 include legends lost, hope for the future

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse than 2020 or 2021, along came 2022. The past three years have been rough, any way you slice it. But for the Tiki community, things turned tragic last year with the devastating loss of multiple legendary figures. But rather than mourn their passing, let’s take the opportunity to remember and reflect on their great impact. And while we’re at it, let’s also give thanks for the positive news that made it into our annual list of the most impactful stories of the year.
Related: The Year in Tiki 2022 – Take a trip back to the year’s top events
Bonus recipes below: Harry Yee’s Tropical Itch | Stephen Remsberg’s Planter’s Punch

1. A FAREWELL TO KINGS: OCEANIC ARTS CELEBRATION AND AUCTION

Oceanic Arts celebration and auction

The top story of 2021 – the retirement of Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz – continued into 2022 with the epic events that marked the true end of an era. Spread over three weekends in April, Aloha Oa! 65 years of Oceanic Arts Celebration took place at the Whittier, Calif., headquarters of the longtime purveyors of South Seas decor. Tikiphiles from around the world came to pay tribute to these two men and their legacy, which can be found in not only Tiki bars and restaurants but also in theme parks, hotels and motels, apartment complexes, and countless other venues built over the past half century. It’s heartening that both were able to be there to see the appreciation for their decades of work on behalf of an artistic style that often is overlooked. Thousands attended the events that featured live music and entertainment, presentations and history lessons, plus an array of tropical libations. And, of course, the opportunity to meet Bob and LeRoy and peruse their vast warehouse of historic Ocean Arts lamps, floats, carvings, and many more items that were cataloged for auction.

Part 2 of the extravaganza was The Oceanic Arts Vintage Tiki Collection Auction, held April 23-24 and featuring likely the most extensive collection of mid-century Polynesian inspired decor and artwork ever offered for sale at one event. Curated by Jordan Reichek, a longtime friend and owner of nearby Peekaboo Gallery, the auction drew bidders large and small seeking to take home a piece of Tiki history. A portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to humanitarian aid and relief for Tonga, which was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami in January.

The monthlong celebration proved to be a fitting farewell for Oceanic Arts, providing both great memories and a unique opportunity to pick up items that will never be made again. For those who couldn’t make it to Southern California, three was a gigantic 500-page book compiled by Reichek featuring artwork from the auction along with archival photos and insightful conversations with Van Oosting and Schmaltz. Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki tells the story of not just the small studio that influenced generations of artists, but also the entire Polynesian Pop movement in America.

2. LEROY SCHMALTZ, THE PAUL BUNYAN OF TIKI, PASSES AWAY

LeRoy Schmaltz, 1935-2022

Less than two months after the Oceanic Arts celebration, the Tiki world lost a legend when carver and artist LeRoy Earl Schmaltz passed away on June 17, not long after celebrating his 87th birthday. The amount of art and woodwork created by this one man was awe inspiring. The Paul Bunyan of Tiki will loom large for generations to come. Schmaltz joined with business partner Robert Van Oosting in 1956 to create Oceanic Arts – a bar, restaurant and entertainment design firm that continued to have an over-sized impact on the industry, even after the pair retired in late 2021.

While Van Oosting ran the business and guided its creative efforts, Schmaltz did the heavy lifting with the workmanlike precision of a lumberjack but the sensibilities of a fine artist. The men had a true affinity for authentic Polynesian art, traveling there often for inspiration in their youth. They also imported and sold the work of artists from across the Pacific Rim. But it was the original works created by Schmaltz (and the many other artists Oceanic Arts employed) that drove the company forward though lean times. Eventually, new fame (and business) arrived with the Polynesian Pop revival in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Beyond Tiki-carving, Schmaltz was proficient in many other disciplines: Mosaic work, watercolor, pastels, charcoals, assemblages, sculptures, architectural design, and much more. Always a humble artist, when Schmaltz was asked what his greatest accomplishment was, he answered without hesitation: “My family.” He was a devout and church-going family man who left not only an artistic legacy but also a vast clan including six children, 10 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren.

3. COCKTAIL AND MUSIC LEGEND BROTHER CLEVE DIES

Brother Cleve made several apperances at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in recent years as a guest mixologist (2018) and DJ (2018, 2019). Credits (left to right): The Atomic Grog, Jim Neumayer, Vincent Minervino
Brother Cleve made several appearances at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale in recent years as a guest mixologist (2018) and DJ (2018, 2019). Credits (left to right): The Atomic Grog, Jim Neumayer, Vincent Minervino.

The influence of Brother Cleve was as vast as his interests. When the craft cocktail pioneer died suddenly in September at age 67, the tributes poured in from across the entertainment world. As a testament to his importance and status as a fixture on the East Coast scene, he was eulogized by writers from the Boston Globe, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal,.

According to The Journal, Cleve (born Robert Toomey) was in Los Angeles to appear at a Tiki-themed bartending event when he died of a heart attack. His first claim to fame was music as a keyboardist in the 1980s. He played in countless bands, including stints touring with the Del Fuegos and Combustible Edison. Then, he had a revelation. As the obituary tells it: “One day in the mid-1980s, at a diner in Cleveland, he noticed scores of cocktails listed on the menu. He began searching thrift shops for cocktail-recipe books and learned to mix and tweak classic drinks.”

Continue reading “Top 10 Tiki stories of 2022 include legends lost, hope for the future”

EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai's renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

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 Mai-Kai

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.

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022
Related blog posts
NEW: The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau
* Beat the summer heat with takeout cocktails from The Mai-Kai
* Latest news on The Mai-Kai renovations and reopening in 2022

Renderings of refurbishment plans for The Mai-Kai, presented to residents of Oakland Park on April 26.
Renderings of refurbishment plans for The Mai-Kai, presented to residents of Oakland Park on April 26.

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.

A rendering of a new event space proposed for the rear of The Mai-Kai under plans being proposed to the city of Oakland Park. (Design by Typhoon Tommy)
A rendering of a new event space proposed for the rear of The Mai-Kai under plans being proposed to the city of Oakland Park. (Design by Typhoon Tommy)

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.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Roof project: Crucial work underway to shore up historic structure
Entrance experience: Flow of parking lot to be reimagined
New event space: Banquet hall planned next to reconstructed kitchen
Behind the scenes: The Mai-Kai interior intact with exciting additions in the works
What’s next? New owner promises continued effort to restore and upgrade

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.

Mireille Thornton, The Mai-Kai's longtime owner and producer of its authentic Polynesian shows. (Mai-Kai photo)
Mireille Thornton, The Mai-Kai’s longtime owner and producer of its authentic Polynesian shows. (Mai-Kai photo)

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.

Past coverage
* The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening

Bill Fuller, who heads The Mai-Kai's new ownership group, shows plans and renderings and describes proposed renovations to the historic restaurant during an online meeting with Oakland Park residents on April 26.
Bill Fuller, who heads The Mai-Kai’s new ownership group, shows plans and renderings and describes proposed renovations to the historic restaurant during an online meeting with Oakland Park residents on April 26.

“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.”

Continue reading “EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space”

2022 RECAP: Past updates on The Mai-Kai renovations and reopening

The Mai-Kai turns 66 as work progresses on multiple renovation projects

Updated Aug. 23, 2023

The Mai-Kai restoration guide
NEW: MAI-KAI RESTORATION GUIDE
Check out our new page for all the latest news, photos, video and deep details on the refurbishment and reopening of South Florida’s Polynesian Palace.
>>> COMPLETE COVERAGE FROM THE ATOMIC GROG

NOTE: The news below is from 2022. Click on the link above for the latest stories from 2023.


2022 RECAP

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 close out 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. Check out all of the updates over the past year below, and keep an eye out for lots more as work ramps up in 2023.

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

DEC. 30 – The Mai-Kai turns 66 as work progresses on multiple renovation projects

The Mai-Kai’s 66th birthday passed quietly on Dec. 28, but there are many reasons to be hopeful that the 67th anniversary in 2023 will be the first since 2019 when we’ll once again be able to gather inside the historic Fort Lauderdale restaurant to appreciate its grandeur and beauty.

The multimillion-dollar renovation that kicked off earlier this year is turning out to be a slow and meticulous process. But rest assured that no expenses are being spared, nor any corners being cut, as the owners and management aim for a possible spring reopening.

Luckily, locals were still able to toast the anniversary – and celebrate the year-end holidays in style – with takeout cocktails prepared by manager Kern Mattei and organized by public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Both stayed busy filling orders for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the latest opportunity to pick up quarts and gallons to go. Look for new dates to be announced soon for 2023.

Following is a detailed recap from our final peek inside the hallowed halls as work was winding down before the holiday break …

Typhoon Tommy: The one-man master restoration machine

I arrived at the main entrance of The Mai-Kai on Wednesday, Dec. 21, to find creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller up on a ladder just inside the main foyer, hard at work restoring the woodwork high above my head. The young craftsman – whose past work can be seen at both Universal and Disney parks, along with several notable Tiki establishments – began working on the interior restoration in July.

The refurbishment of The Molokai lounge at The Mai-Kai are nearing completion, thanks to creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller. Woodwork was rejuvenated, and lamps were repaired or rebuilt. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)
The refurbishment of The Molokai lounge at The Mai-Kai are nearing completion, thanks to creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. Woodwork was rejuvenated, and lamps were repaired or rebuilt. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)

Allsmiller has spent the past six months bringing The Molokai bar back to its vintage glory. He gave us a tour while also discussing one of his most painstaking projects: Refurbishing many of the hundreds of lamps hanging throughout the restaurant. Many of these date back to the early years of The Mai-Kai and were created by the venerable Oceanic Arts. [See past coverage below]

It was the designer’s last day of the year working inside the building, but as usual he planned to take his work home with him to central Florida to continue to rebuild lamps in workshop over the holiday break. He said that when he returns in January, he plans to have a partner helping him kickstart work on his long list of projects.

The Molokai is nearly done, Allsmiller said, pointing out all of the woodwork that has been completed. Painters will arrive next to do the finishing touches on the nautical-themed bar that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s early 1970s expansion. Much of the stylized decor – such as the ship’s rigging and props on display – were featured in the classic Marlin Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and purchased from the MGM prop department.

A piece of wood from the pre-1970 Molokai bar was strategically placed by Typhoon Tommy during renovations. He uncovered several vintage wood panels that had been sealed beneath the facade of the reimagined bar and entrance area for more than 50 years. We got a peek at them in the back office (at right). (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)
A piece of wood from the pre-1970 Molokai bar was strategically placed by Typhoon Tommy during renovations. He uncovered several vintage wood panels that had been sealed beneath the facade of the reimagined bar and entrance area for more than 50 years. We got a peek at them in the back office (at right). (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)

Allsmiller showed off an Easter egg he left hidden high in the rafters of The Molokai: Part of a decorative wood panel that pre-dates the 1970 redressing of the bar. These painted panels were originally used outside the front door and throughout The Molokai. [See our original post below]

Later, in the back office, we spotted several large panels that Allsmiller was able to remove nearly intact after being covered for more than 50 years. He said he found the painted wood pieces, which can be seen in vintage Mai-Kai photos, when he redid the beam above the front door.

“They’re in great shape, so I thought I’d save them, not cover them up,” Allsmiller said. Could they be destined for use elsewhere in the refurbishment?

Just inside The Molokai bar, a table holds an array of lamps being renovated by creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)
Just inside The Molokai bar, a table holds an array of lamps being renovated by creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)

A table set up near the entrance to The Molokai was overflowing with lamps in various stages of restoration. The restaurant is filled to the brim with these incredibly detailed works of functional art, but Allsmiller said he’s making progress.

He pointed out one of the lamps that required a full rebuild of its insides. He said he plans to put a new top on it before returning it to its spot hanging from the ceiling.

A great example of the length Allsmiller will go to in restoring these lamps was a weathered, hourglass-shaped fixture that he totally rebuilt. He’s still working on the trim work on the vintage lamp, which he found with a badly ripped panel.

Outside the entrance to The Mai-Kai, Typhoon Tommy shows off a lamp that he meticulously restored. He replaced damaged panels and painted them by hand to look original. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)
Outside the entrance to The Mai-Kai, Typhoon Tommy shows off a lamp that he meticulously restored. He replaced damaged panels and painted them by hand to look original. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, December 2022)

To ensure that the repair looks exactly like the original, he used old fiberglass paper that was removed elsewhere. “It fits the timeline,” he said. He then hand-painted it to mimic the original. The entire internal structure is all brand new, but his work using a pinstriping brush on the restored panels will be undetectable when its returned to its perch.

Continue reading “2022 RECAP: Past updates on The Mai-Kai renovations and reopening”

The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening

Fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening of The Mai-Kai

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.

The Mai-Kai's official announcement on the sale and new partnership

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 through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers
EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers

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.

2022 UPDATES
* Latest news on the reopening plans
* The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau
* The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

Past coverage: Thousands of fans unite to show support for The Mai-Kai during closing

Guests of The Hukilau gathered at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 for the "Save Paradise Party." (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Guests of The Hukilau gathered at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 for the “Save Paradise Party.” (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

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.”

Kulani Thornton Gelardi serves appreciative guests at a special event at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 during The Hukilau. She later assured the crowd that the restaurant will reopen soon. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Kulani Thornton Gelardi serves appreciative guests at a special event at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18 during The Hukilau. She later assured the crowd that the restaurant will reopen soon. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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.”

>>> The official press release on MaiKai.com

New owners ‘humbled’ and ‘honored’ to be able ‘preserve the legacy” of The Mai-Kai

Mai-Kai musicians perform for guests of The Hukilau on Sept. 18. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Mai-Kai musicians perform for guests of The Hukilau on Sept. 18. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

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 Mai-Kai in 1956 and today
The Mai-Kai in 1956 and today.

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.

Mai-Kai cocktails: Authentic and tribute recipes, news on quarts and gallons to go

The Mai-Kai cost new partners $7.5M with renovations expected to boost value to $16M

A 1979 photo of original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine in The Molokai bar with his signature tropical drinks
A 1979 photo of original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine in The Molokai bar with his signature tropical drinks.

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.

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening”

Exclusive photos: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers

Exclusive photos: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers

Among the most loyal followers of The Mai-Kai are the thousands of guests who flock to Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau, an annual celebration of Polynesian Pop culture that established a foothold in the historic restaurant in 2003 and remains inextricably linked.

During it's closure, The Mai-Kai has been hosting guests for cocktails and activities in the porte-cochère, under the thatched entrance area. (Mai-Kai photo)
During it’s closure, The Mai-Kai has been hosting guests for cocktails and activities in the porte-cochère, under the thatched entrance area. (Mai-Kai photo)

The recent announcement of The Mai-Kai’s planned refurbishment and reopening sent joyous shockwaves throughout the Tiki community, but especially among The Hukilau’s longtime “villagers,” as they’re known. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, but we were able to get a taste of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau in September 2021 during a special event in the porte-cochère. It was comforting to sip authentic cocktails and enjoy the musicians performing outside the front entrance, but many still longed to be inside.

When it was announced during the event that a deal had been struck and The Mai-Kai would be reopening, it made the experience even sweeter. Full details were released the following week (see story below), and the rest is history.

The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening
RELATED COVERAGE: The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening

While the timeline is not clear on a reopening date, hopes are running high that the 20th anniversary of The Hukilau in 2022 will indeed include at least a partial return to indoor activities. The synergy is guaranteed to continue with the news that one of the investors in the new ownership team is The Hukilau’s head honcho, Richard Oneslager.

Beyond taking in all the activities – from the dinner show featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue to live bands in The Molokai bar – a ritual for many villagers during The Hukilau includes walking the sacred grounds and taking photos of their beloved Mai-Kai.

Below you’ll find a collection of those photos, shared with The Atomic Grog over the years. Many are appearing on the blog for the first time. Let’s enjoy the eye candy and look forward to once again returning in person for the grand reopening.

Continue reading “Exclusive photos: The Mai-Kai through the eyes of The Hukilau villagers”