Little Havana developer buys stake in shuttered Mai Kai restaurant

Known for redevelopment projects on Miami’s Calle Ocho, Bill Fuller is now targeting the storied Oakland Park venue, with plans to renovate and reopen it

Barlington Group co-founder Bill Fuller and The Mai Kai Restaurant (Barlington, Facebook via Mai-Kai Restaurant)
Barlington Group co-founder Bill Fuller and The Mai Kai Restaurant (Barlington, Facebook via Mai-Kai Restaurant)

A Miami-based developer of nightlife and restaurant projects in Little Havana is breaking out his tiki torches in Broward County.

A joint venture among companies with ties to Bill Fuller and the family that owns Mai Kai restaurant paid $7.5 million for the shuttered tourist and locals hangout in Oakland Park, according to records. A Fuller entity, Tiki Real Estate LLC, took out a $6 million mortgage with American National Bank.

Fuller said the real estate purchase is part of a deal with the original owners that is worth more than $16 million, with plans to restore and reopen Mai Kai by the end of next year.

Mai Kai Inc., which is managed by Mireille Thornton, had owned the 26,913-square-foot building and its surrounding parking lots at 3599 North Federal Highway for more than three generations. Completed in 1956, the popular restaurant and entertainment venue was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2014.

Known for its Polynesian-themed cuisine, libations and entertainment, Mai Kai has been closed since October 2020 following water damage from a burst pipe that caused the restaurant’s thatched roof to cave in.

“The family engaged in an exhaustive public search for a partner,” Fuller said. “This is the type of project that resonates with our ethos of engaging in projects with history and legacy. It is truly one of the most iconic venues in the U.S.”

Andrew Cagnetta with Transworld Business Advisors of Fort Lauderdale represented the seller, and Larry Gautier with NAI Miami represented the buyer.

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The new partnership is made up of the Thornton family, real estate development company Barlington Group, and Mad Room Hospitality, Fuller said. Barlington is a real estate and development firm Fuller co-founded with Martin Pinilla that has amassed about 450,000 square feet of real estate since 2004, including four commercial properties in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Mad Room, a hospitality management company Fuller and brothers Zach and Ben Bush co-founded, owns Little Havana venues Ball and Chain, Los Altos and Taquerias El Mexicano. Ball and Chain was shut down last year when the city of Miami revoked its certificate of occupancy as a result of code violations initiated by city commissioner Joe Carollo.

Previously, Fuller accused Carollo of orchestrating the crackdown as retaliation against him for supporting another candidate in the 2017 election. He and Pinilla sued Carollo in federal court.

While Fuller’s companies are involved in ventures in other states, the deal for the Mai Kai is his first in a Florida city other than Miami, Fuller said. “It’s big enough to drag us out of Miami,” he said. “My family and I had been going to Mai Kai for 30 years.”

In the past, a night at the 600-seat restaurant was aimed to be an entertaining experience. As patrons noshed and drank, Mai Kai would put on a Polynesian performance called the Samoan Fire and Knife Dance. The show entailed men in loincloths twirling batons of fire inside the dining room.

The plumbing incident last year caused catastrophic damage, but the joint venture is going to fully renovate the kitchen and the property will be restored to its historical condition, Fuller said. He said construction will begin immediately, with the goal of having a full reopening by the end of 2022.

“There is really nothing to change,” Fuller said. “We are going to preserve so much of its history.”