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Axe throwing comes to Madison as sport continues to expand

August 6, 2018

Johnny Lee’s day job involves helping his clients buy and sell homes.

His new side gig will entail showing another set of customers how to properly grip a hatchet and fling it at a wooden target 12 feet away.

Lee is about to open Happy Axe, Madison’s first axe-throwing business. The sport has been growing across the country and is designed to offer a new experience for those seeking an alternative to darts, pool, volleyball and bowling.

But because of liability issues and prohibitive insurance rates, alcohol will not be a part of Lee’s business plan.

“I contacted 10 different insurance companies and only one of them was willing to give me insurance,” Lee said. “There was a specialized company that was willing to do it but the prices were astronomical ... like between $5,000 and $15,000 per month. But most weren’t willing to do anything.”

But Lee believes his 850-square-foot business tucked into the interior of Clock Tower Court at the corner of Mineral Point Road and Grand Canyon Boulevard will be viable for leagues, bachelor and birthday parties, corporate outings and other events. Participants stand behind a line, much like in darts, and can use one or two hands to throw the hatchets. Points are accumulated only when the hatchet sticks into the circular target that is drawn on three boards, each 10 inches wide and four feet tall.

A bullseye is worth five points, the next ring is three points and the outer ring is worth one point. Two small seven point circles are located on the upper left and upper right of each target, too. Games can go to 21, count down from 100 or take other forms depending on the players. A spray bottle is also on hand and used to wet the pine target, which improves the odds of the hatchet sticking. The boards are changed out after six hours of use.

Speed is not important. A slow, gradual release is typically more effective, Lee said.

“To be safe, there are two different ways to throw it,” Lee said. “Two hands over the head, stepping forward and throwing and then throwing it (with one hand) just like a baseball where you take a step forward and throw.”

Happy Axe is part of a trend that has already come to the Milwaukee area. Lumber Axe opened on Bluemound Road in Waukesha and advertises escape rooms, axe throwing and craft beer while on Milwaukee’s east side Axe MKE features 12 axe-throwing lanes and a full bar.

In La Crosse, the owner of an escape room has proposed opening Driftless Axe in late September in the city’s downtown that will include nine throwing lanes, the La Crosse Tribune reported. Toby Farly, who has a mobile three-lane axe-throwing business that sets up at fairs and festivals, has applied for an alcohol license, which has support of city staff and could get approval at the Aug. 9 city council meeting.

Lee, 26, said he looked into a franchise with Bad Axe Throwing, which has 23 locations in Canada and the U.S., but instead built out his own set up between the Hobby Stop and a Jazzercise studio and across from a nail salon. His inspiration came about eight months ago after he attended a bachelor party at a Bad Axe Throwing bar in Chicago. After initially considering a location in Sun Prairie, Lee found a less expensive location on Madison’s West Side.

“Millennials are so into it,” said Lee’s mother, Cyndie Brown, 53, who is Lee’s partner in real estate but has yet to throw a hatchet. “We have all age groups looking at this. Johnny and his fiance (Liz Machesney) have really investigated this and done their research.”

Lee was asked about three weeks ago by the city to build a single lane to show what he was planning and received approval for the business about two weeks ago. That led to more construction and purchasing, at $40 a piece, 14 inch Estwing Sportsman hatchets, which are all metal and more durable than those with wooden handles. Lee received a certificate of occupancy from the city on July 23.

Lee plans to open on Aug. 18 and his social media efforts promoting the business have already been seen by over 150,000 people. For opening day he already has 30 bookings, which equates to about 80 to 100 people.

“I don’t think (a lack of alcohol) will be a big issue,”said Lee. “I’ve gotten a lot of responses.”

Reservations are made online and cost $20 per person per hour with the business open primarily in the evening but opening at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. Throwing is open to anyone 12 and over but those 15 and younger must be accompanied by an adult.

Lee grew up in the Chicago area and graduated from Southern Illinois University with a marketing degree. He moved to Madison to pursue a real estate career with First Weber but said his Happy Axe business is a venture he never thought he would consider. But he believes it has a place in the realm of Madison entertainment options, since he had never thrown an axe before attending that bachelor party in Chicago.

“It was a lot of fun and I’ve taken a real interest in it ever since,” Lee said. “I saw all types of people throwing and all age groups. I just thought this would be great for everyone to try.”

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