Trending indoor activity of axe-throwing arrives in NWA; businesses already planning expansions

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 491 views 

Bryce Paden is a co-founder of Urban Forest Axe House in Bentonville. It opened in December 2018and was the first venue of its kind in the state.

Bryce Paden thinks everyone wants to throw a hatchet. Only they don’t know it yet.

“It allows you to feel primal and empowered,” he said. “It feels a little bit like something you shouldn’t be allowed to do. Throwing a real axe into a wall.”

And while on the subject of things you shouldn’t be allowed to do, throwing an axe while having a few beers is permitted. What could go wrong?

On paper, you might think that’s a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen. In reality, in a controlled environment with an axe “coach” teaching the basics and supervising the action, Paden says it’s a fun and safe way to spend an evening.

A growing number of entertainment seekers seem to agree. Axe throwing (they are hatchets, actually) is trending in the U.S. as an indoor recreational sport. So much so that two governing bodies have formed in the past three years — the National Axe Throwing Federation (NATF) and the World Axe Throwing League (WATL).

The first indoor venue in the U.S. opened in New Jersey in 2016. There are now approximately 300 across the country. There are four in Arkansas, and two of those are in Benton County. They are attracting a diverse group of patrons willing to try something other than bowling, darts or another night of bar-hopping.

“It’s simple, but it’s real,” said WATL Commissioner Evan Walters. The league launched in 2017 and now has about 200 venue members in 19 countries. “When you throw an axe, and you’re able to stick it in the wood, and you hear that sound, you think, ‘I just did that. I just threw an axe.’”

But will the trend stick? Paden seems to think so. He and business partners Trent Carrender and Colby Ritter opened Arkansas’ first indoor axe throwing venue in December 2018. It’s called Urban Forest Axe House, situated in a 2,500-square-foot suite off Walton Boulevard in Bentonville along the Razorback Regional Greenway.

“We were a profitable business by the second month,” Paden said. “And we’ve been regularly beating our [financial] projections. We’ve since brought on some additional partners and investors, and we’ll be opening additional locations. We’ll have some announcements about that soon.”

Besides the venue expansion, Paden said Urban Forest will soon launch a mobile axe throwing unit. The 18-foot, open-air trailer is enclosed in a steel cage — similar to the lanes at the venue — and will feature two targets.

In downtown Rogers, there are also expansion plans for Ozark Axe House. Taylor Haddock, Nathan Hughes, John Rippl and Patrick Stuart opened their venue on North Second Street in February.

“You will see an expansion of Ozark Axe House,” Rippl said. “I can’t share those details just yet. Our strategy is to find locations where there is enough population for this unique experience and bring our form of entertainment to those cities.”

INCLUSIVE ACTIVITY
Rippl has worked in the consumer packaged industry (CPG) business for 33 years. He’s now vice president of insights and analytics for Acosta in Rogers, a sales and marketing firm for CPG companies. Number-crunching, naturally, appeals to him.

“I would say close to 90% of the people who come into our venue have never thrown an axe indoors,” he said. “Some may have thrown at trees in the backyard or something like that. Once they do and get the hang of it, that’s when the fun begins.”

Since axe throwing is relatively new to most patrons, both Urban Forest and Ozark Axe House have exhaustive “FAQ” sections on their respective websites. Topics range from what not to wear, what it costs, how to throw and is there any liability.

At the venues, before anyone picks up a hatchet, coaches give patrons demonstrations on throwing techniques and brief them on safety rules.

“You’ve probably never done this before, so we’re going to make sure you have a great time,” Paden said.

Paden says you don’t need any particular set of skills to throw hatchets, calling the activity a great equalizer. If there is a baseline rule of thumb to grasp, it’s this: throwing hard doesn’t translate to a better throw.

“This is a finesse and technique activity, and it’s tremendously inclusive,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how big, small, tall or short you are. We’ve had folks from [age] 13 to people in their upper 80s stick bull’s-eyes with us.”

Paden said he came across an axe throwing venue a couple of years ago in Tulsa, Okla., while traveling with his wife. With a good experience there, he started learning more about the industry. Paden and Carrender are the co-founders of Rogers technology startup i2i Labs. He said they would use their work travels as a chance to visit other venues across the country and develop their business concept for Northwest Arkansas.

“We’ve thrown in Brooklyn [N.Y], Dallas, Kansas City [Mo.] and a few other places,” Paden said. “We see axe throwing as a way to help keep pace with the amenities found in competing cities. The axe throwing culture fits perfectly with the influx of outdoor- and fitness-minded young professionals we are seeing migrate to the area.”

Urban Forest has nine throwing targets. Eight of them are used for general bookings and corporate events. The extra lane is a dedicated practice area for staff and throwers who belong to the WATL. Urban Forest was the first venue in Arkansas certified by the WATL. Businesses that join the organization must abide by rules that specify details like target design and throwing distances. Even the types of hatchets used must be compliant with league guidelines.

For an added element of competition, Urban Forest has leagues for recreational throwers and for those who want to compete in the WATL. League nights are Monday nights. Each thrower has an online player profile with automatic stat tracking. Urban Forest is included in the WATL global leaderboard, so throwers can see how they stack up against the rest of the world in real time.

Kevin Campbell threw his first axe in February at Urban Forest and now visits the venue at least once a week. His wife also works there.

“I was a little leery at first, but as soon as I threw my first axe, I dove in headfirst,” said Campbell, who is a programmer at Walmart Inc.

Campbell said the Urban Forest atmosphere immediately appealed to him. The vibe is fast-paced, loud and energetic, but there is one noticeable absence patrons may notice. There are no television sets at Urban Forest. Paden said he wants customers focused on what they came there to do —socialize, throw axes and have a good time.

“The first time we went, Trent [Carrender] was our coach, and he made it a lot of fun and enjoyable,” Campbell said. “That appealed to me. The staff was really energized.”

Campbell said when possible, he brings some friends when he visits Urban Forest. He even had his birthday party there in July. He now owns four hatchets and is considering building axe throwing targets at his home so he can practice between league nights.

Walk-in customers are possible but not guaranteed. Paden says it’s a reservation activity, whether that’s for date nights, birthday parties, church functions or corporate events. The standard rate at Urban Forest is $26 for 75 minutes’ worth of hatchet-throwing games. The price is $20 per hour at Ozark Axe House.

SOCIALIZING SAFELY
Before opening Ozark Axe House, Rippl thought there would be a universal appeal to axe throwing. But he assumed it would be a younger, hipster-type crowd. He found the activity attracts all kinds of adults of all ages, males and females.

Ozark Axe House opened in February in downtown Rogers. John Rippl, a co-owner, says expansion of the business model to other cities is already in the works.

“When you start a new business, you never know who your clientele will be,” he said. “We’ve been surprised by the demographic that’s come in. It’s more female than male. And the average age is about 36.”

It certainly helps that like most axe throwing venues, Ozark Axe House, which has 10 throwing targets, allows customers to bring alcohol. No hard liquor, just beer and wine for anyone who wants it, as long as they are 21-and-older.

There is a caveat — there’s a two-drink max per session. Urban Forest has a similar alcohol policy among its safety guidelines.

For anyone put off by the notion about the mixture of flying hatchets and consuming alcohol, the owners are quick to assuage these concerns.

“We’re an axe throwing venue. We’re not a bar,” Paden said. “You can have a couple of drinks if you’d like. We have our coaches there to keep an eye on that.”

As for the risk factor, Paden says axe throwing is no more dangerous than bowling. Statistics underscore that claim. Brett Pollak is the owner of AxeThrowingInsurance.com, a Chicago-based insurance broker that sells liability insurance to about 150 venues across the country.

“We don’t insure every venue in the country, but we are not aware of any [liability] claims or any lawsuits to date,” Pollak said. His company sells insurance to all four Arkansas venues.

“We’ve had [a customer with] one splinter,” Paden said. “That’s been the extent of our injury list the past eight months. We’re doing everything we can to keep it that way.”

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