Meet the Maker Supplying Local Private Tiki Bars

Find out how Don Peterka, owner of Detroit Tiki Co., is supplying a taste of Polynesia in Detroit.
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Don Peterka is the owner of Detroit Tiki Co., a choice supplier for self-described “tikiphiles.” // Photograph by Amy Gillespie Photography

Detroit has a long history of tiki bars.

Apparently, on dull winter days, nothing seemed better to Detroiters in the 1950s and ’60s than the escapism of a tiki bar complete with palm trees and mai tais. But although the heyday of Detroit’s tiki bar scene is long past, its collections scattered to garage sales and secondhand stores, ultimately landing in home tiki bars. Which is why today, many of Detroit’s best tiki bars can’t be found on a map. Instead, they’ve gone underground, literally.

Metro Detroit has the Midwest’s best basement tiki bars, and the greatest maker of contemporary tiki statues supplying these private oases also happens to live in the area. Don Peterka of Detroit Tiki Co. makes tikis admired by tiki bar devotees, called “tikiphiles” — fans of tiki bars, all things vintage Hawaiian, and, of course, colorful cocktails.

A graphic designer, Peterka had been furloughed from his job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to dive into making his unique cement tiki figures, a creative endeavor he had tried back in 2017. Jump to fall 2020, and Peterka was making his tikis by casting cement in a unique process that took him years to develop. While many tikis you might typically discover in commercial tiki bars are made from carved wood, Peterka wanted his statues to be able to withstand harsh Midwest winters.

“The fact that he’s working in cement is very different,” explains Ed Schroeder, a Warren-residing basement tiki bar owner. He points out that most wood versions tend to be commercialized or cartoonish in style. Peterka agrees. “I’m not a fan of the ‘party tiki,’ the smiling tiki that’s brightly colored,” he says. “I’m more into the look from the Polynesian or Cook islands.” After casting his pieces, he weathers them with a stain that patinas over time. “I want my tikis to look like you’re going through a tropical jungle and stumbled on them.”

While Peterka does combine elements that feel authentically Polynesian, he also weaves in just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek quality that coincides with Detroit’s kitschy tiki culture. For example, he spins tall tales for his pieces, saying they were unearthed at “a mud bank during the construction of the Ford Motor Company River Rouge Complex,” and at art fairs, he’ll joke with visitors to his booth: “Did you know they found tikis when they built downtown Detroit, and they still don’t know if they were brought by the glaciers or if Polynesians paddled up through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel?” Most people realize he’s joking.

But it’s this fun quirkiness of Peterka’s work that has captured tikiphiles’ attention, including Schroeder’s. The two men first met when Peterka started selling his tikis at a local art festival, and Schroeder was so impressed with his work that he invited Peterka to stop by his basement tiki bar — “Indeed, he insisted I attend,” Peterka recalls with a chuckle.

There, Peterka, in turn, would be impressed with Schroeder’s bar. “Some [basement tiki bars] are equal to or surpass some of the tiki bars in Detroit with their vintage collections from long-gone tiki establishments,” Peterka says. “So it was a real treat getting to step inside one — plus, for home tiki bars, you know, you have to be invited by the person who owns it.”

After this visit, Peterka’s tikis became constant guests at Schroeder’s basement and many other private oases across the city and beyond. Peterka now sells his wares at tikiphile spots like the Atomic Tiki Bazaar at Max’s South Seas Hideaway in Grand Rapids and online to people as far away as Florida and California, the birthplace of tiki bars via legendary restaurant Trader Vic’s.

How far Peterka’s come isn’t lost on him. “I never thought I could turn it into a business,” he says, though he always loved tiki culture.

While growing up in Livonia, he was drawn to the giant tiki statues outside Detroit’s longest-running tiki bar, Chin Tiki, perhaps best known today by many for its appearance in Eminem’s movie 8 Mile. “When Sven Kirsten, author of Book of Tiki and godfather to the latest rebirth of tiki culture, told me how much he liked my tikis, I knew they were special.”

Today, Peterka creates tiki figures, lamps, T-shirts, and glassware, and he also sells tiki- inspired jewelry crafted by his wife, Betty. Like the culture of basement tiki bars, everything he makes is playful. A “Greg Brady Must Die” T-shirt, alluding to the famous Brady Bunch Hawaiian episodes, is a bestseller. This year, Peterka will also be making a new tiki mug, large outdoor tiki figures, and an exclusive drink glass. Tikiphiles can’t wait.

For Don Peterka’s favorite tiki bars in metro Detroit, go to hourdetroit.com/tikibars.


This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on May 6.