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Nine months after the water-damaged Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show put its iconic building and land up for sale, the 64-year-old landmark has landed a fleet of new investors – with ambitious plans to reopen part of the property by spring 2022.
Even more ambitious: They want the entire 26,000-square-foot restaurant to get sweeping structural upgrades and a new roof — while keeping its old kitschy, rum-soaked charm. That means the Molokai bar and its intoxicating tiki cocktails, and its dining room — home to pu pu platters and Samoan fire knife dancing — won’t change any time soon.
The team behind the Mai-Kai makeover is led by Bill Fuller, co-founder of the Barlington Group, a Miami-based commercial developer whose tenants include Toasted Bagelry & Deli and Little Havana businesses Blackbird Ordinary, 8 Burger, Little Havana Cigar Factory and the 86-year-old live-music icon Ball & Chain. The restaurant has also partnered with Fuller’s Mad Room Hospitality (Ball & Chain), Oakland Park’s American National Bank and investors Richard Oneslager, Jeff Roschman and Mark Macek.
That joint partnership will spend $8.5 million over the next six to 14 months to upgrade the aging building and fix extensive flood damage caused by a roof cave-in last October.
In an interview Wednesday with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Fuller said plans called for state-of-the-art kitchens, new air-conditioning systems, a replacement roof, more tropical landscaping and the labor-intensive task of bringing the Mai-Kai up to modern building codes with new electrical wiring and plumbing.
Under the deal, the Mai-Kai’s longtime owners, the Thornton Family, would remain a “major stakeholder with decision authority,” and the family would continue operating the Mai-Kai with help from Mad Room Hospitality, Fuller says.
“It’s the Holy Grail of tiki culture,” Fuller says. “It’s one of the last remaining authentic venues remaining from that era. Sometimes the families want to sell to the highest bidder, but that’s not what the Thorntons wanted. If it wasn’t for the family truly wanting the protect the legacy of the business, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Property records show the Mai-Kai building is worth at least $3.97 million while the land – which includes a rear, 150-space parking lot – is valued at $570,000. When finished, Fuller says the property, it’s antique décor, furnishings and intellectual property would be valued at $16 million.
Fuller says renovations will start “soon,” although how soon will depend on how quickly permits push their way through the city of Oakland Park.
In an interview Wednesday, Kulani Thornton Gelardi, daughter of Mai-Kai co-founder Jack Thornton, describes the “panic and shock” that settled over family members and longtime employees last October after tropical-storm flooding ripped a pickup truck-size hole in the kitchen roof. Facing millions in costly repairs, including bringing the plumbing and electrical up to code, Gelardi says, “We weren’t always sure it was going to be possible.”
“But then customers are calling you in tears, saying they’ve been coming to Thanksgiving dinners, wedding and anniversaries here for 30 years,” she says. “It really got to us and made us realize we could never close this place down.”
After putting the building and land up for sale in January, wealthy developers instantly came knocking. By summer, the Thornton family had more than 100 offers to tear the restaurant down and replace it with a hip, modernized Mai-Kai, or – worse – replace it with something else.
The Thorntons ignored them all, Gelardi says. In the interim, Mai-Kai employees and family members insisted on Facebook that the restaurant would be preserved – despite zero guarantees that a new owner would heed that strategy.
But then Fuller and Mad Room Hospitality pitched something radically different: to preserve the Mai-Kai as it was.
“What convinced us is Bill wanted it to be as close as possible to the original blueprint,” Gelardi says. “He’s very passionate when he speaks. He literally moved us with his desire to bring the restaurant back.”
Fuller, who remembers visiting the Mai-Kai with his grandparents as a child, says, “I was the guy who wanted to buy the cool tiki mug, and escaped into the awesome Polynesian shows,” he says. “This is a dream come true.”
The cost to reconstruct the Mai-Kai from scratch would have cost $30 million, Fuller estimates, but his project would upgrade the back-of-house – primarily a 7,000-square-foot detached section built in the 1970s – while leaving the dining room and Molokai bar’s wooden carvings, art and history intact.
In particular, Fuller was keen to preserve the Tahiti-imported materials used to construct the Mai-Kai in 1956, and its bamboo carvings, lighting fixtures, support columns, railings and floors. The bar top and ship’s riggings from the Molokai — the Mai-Kai’s dark cocktail haven — had been salvaged from the 1962 Marlon Brando film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” (The Mai-Kai was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.)
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“Those are the things we were adamant about,” he says. “It’s like a 12th century cathedral in there. You can’t buy material like that, or even replace it. They are priceless. [The family and I] both agreed on that, and so those things won’t be touched.”
For now, Fuller says the Thornton family is intent on reopening the Molokai first, as soon as spring. In the meantime, the Mai-Kai will keep hosting monthly cocktails to-go gatherings in the restaurant’s rear parking lot.
“I want to reopen it today, but I have to be realistic,” Fuller says. “There’s been a backlog of permitting during the pandemic.”
Gelardi says all of the Mai-Kai’s employees will be rehired. Also taking an active role at the revived restaurant will be Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, who was a Mai-Kai dancer in the 1960s, married co-founder Bob Thornton in the 1970s and took over after his death in 1989.
“My mom is going to continue programming the choreography of the Polynesian shows, designing the costumes, teaching the dancers,” Gelardi says. “The show will still be her show.”
Brothers and tikiholics Bob and Jack Thornton opened the Mai-Kai on Dec. 26, 1956, on a then-desolate stretch of Federal Highway for $300,000, said to be the most expensive restaurant built that year in the country. An intoxicating hub for rum runners, mai tais and other tropical kitsch in a glass, the Mai-Kai’s ability to draw levelheaded folks under its tipsy spell has only grown stronger over the decades.