Mai-Kai’s costly nightmare: Historic restaurant to stay closed up to a year after roof cave-in

Phillip Valys, South Florida Sun Sentinel

A burst water pipe destroyed the kitchen of Oakland Park’s iconic Mai-Kai Restaurant in October, and costly repairs will force the 64-year-old Polynesian time capsule to stay closed up to a year – if they can come up with the money.

On Oct. 25, a busted sprinkler pipe and weekend flooding ripped a hole in the thatched roof the size of a pickup truck, Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei told the Sun Sentinel on Thursday. The roof cave-in bent steel beams propping up the roof and left the kitchen’s contents – prep tables, grills, ovens – destroyed in the deluge.

“It was this perfect storm of bad luck and too much flooding,” Mattei said of the hole, now covered by a tarpaulin. “I knew right away we couldn’t open. The only silver lining was it happened when we were closed and no one was hurt.”

Two months after abruptly shutting down, the historic Mai-Kai Restaurant remains stuck in financial limbo, with a repair bill its owners can ill afford, sluggish income and over 100 employees out of work. Building contractors say the Mai-Kai’s entire roof must now be replaced, along with fixing support walls, demolishing and rebuilding its kitchen and replacing aging, flood-damaged equipment. That process will take months – and possibly a year, Mattei said.

“Once you exceed a certain level of damage, there are life-safety issues,” said Stephanie Toothaker, a Fort Lauderdale attorney for the owners. “To make it more complicated, you’ve got a 64-year-old restaurant that doesn’t meet current building codes.”

Oakland Park records show the Mai-Kai filed a permit to demolish its kitchen on Dec. 9, a job it estimates would cost nearly $28,000. The city rejected it on Dec. 14 because the Mai-Kai first needed to file separate electrical and mechanical permits, an Oakland Park employee told the Sun Sentinel.

The Mai-Kai now has 60 days to file electrical and mechanical permits, the employee says. If the Feb. 14, 2021, deadline passes first, the restaurant must file its kitchen demolition permit all over again.

Even worse, money from a flood insurance claim, filed in early November, will come “woefully short” of repair costs, Mattei said. He said the family-run restaurant is now seeking an angel investor who can give the Mai-Kai an infusion of capital for renovations. Lawyers plan to present a list of potential business partners to owners as soon as January.

“The problem is you can’t just replace half the roof where the damage was. We have a flat roof in the back, near the gardens that has to be brought up to modern building codes,” said Mattei, a Mai-Kai employee since 1984 and cousin of co-owner Kulani Thornton Gelardi. “It’s been a super-slow process. It will take three to six months once everything gets started, but things aren’t moving.”

There are no plans to update the rest of the Mai-Kai, including its 600-seat dining room, its tiki-rific Molokai Bar and lush sprawl of tropical gardens, which all escaped flood damage, said Pia Dahlquist, the Mai-Kai’s marketing and communications director.

“It was a crazy amount of rain,” Dahlquist said.

The Mai-Kai has kept mum about the extent of its damage. When it closed Oct. 27 without explanation, Mai-Kai acolytes (and their detractors) sounded off with speculations on social media. Some suspected the landmark was the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. After two days of silence, the restaurant’s follow-up Facebook post on Oct. 29 offered another vague statement: “weekend flooding” had caused the closure.

Other commenters painted an aging landmark in gradual decline, and expressed little surprise the Mai-Kai needed repairs. Others hoped the Mai-Kai would renovate more than its kitchen, and update its dining room and dim, dark Molokai bar.

Instead, the Mai-Kai aims to fix only what was broken.

The Mai-Kai, which passed its most-recent state inspection on June 30, let its food-service license expire on Dec. 1, according to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The restaurant has been dogged by state health violations in recent years, including two high-priority citations on June 29 that revealed improper food-storage temperatures and sanitation. A June 2019 inspection showed seven high-priority violations, including live roaches in the kitchen. Health inspectors briefly ordered the Mai-Kai to stop selling food when it red-flagged seven major food-temperature issues in December 2018. All issues were corrected within days.

After the October flood, the restaurant started clearing out roof mold and has shrunk from 150 employees to a barebones staff of “just a few people working from home,” Dahlquist said.

“We’re frustrated,” she said. “Other employees have gone on to other jobs.”

To keep the lights on and fund-raise for employees laid off after the cave-in, Mai-Kai plans to stage its 64th anniversary party on Monday, Dec. 28, in the 150-space parking lot it owns behind the restaurant.

The event will resemble a tailgating party, with cars parked in every other space. Visitors can bring fold-out chairs to their assigned space – but not food, which will be cooked by onsite food trucks. The Mai Kai’s Molokai bar will serve two of its most-popular cocktails, Mai Tais and Barrels of Rum, along with beer, wine and soda.

The restaurant has been surviving on private donations and sales from its online gift shop, the Mai-Kai Trading Post, which sells tiki mugs and other nostalgic swag. The restaurant’s physical gift shop was emptied after the flood and its contents moved into dry storage, she says.

A tiki-enthusiast group calling itself the Fraternal Order of Moai, which used to host a monthly tiki-themed bingo at the Mai-Kai, has been fundraising for the restaurant. Out-of-work Mai-Kai employees, all invited to the party, will be given those donations during the event.

“It’s not much, but it’s more than nothing,” she says. “We would usually have a Christmas party indoors but since that can’t happen, we want to treat employees another way.”

Oakland Park Mayor Jane Bolin says she’s invested in saving the Mai-Kai, her city’s oldest restaurant. She plans to address the Mai-Kai financial woes at an upcoming commission meeting and tap the city’s historic preservation board to help preserve the Mai-Kai’s history during repairs.

“There’s no other show like it here,” Bolin says. “The fruity cocktails inside coconuts, the dancers – it really does feel like Polynesia by way of South Florida.”