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How Ottawa's Lumberjaxe is surviving the pandemic, axe in hand

In a world without corporate parties and large birthdays, Lumberjaxe took axe-throwing into the backyards of committed throwers, and out to their own parking lot.

There is nothing overly complicated about what you do at Lumberjaxe, one of Ottawa’s four axe-throwing locations. In part, that’s because there’s nothing all that complicated about the sport of axe throwing: You stand at one end of a lane — for now, located outside, on a makeshift back patio — with a painted wooden target at the other, and chuck an axe that rotates in the air before (hopefully) sticking deep into the wood. 

If you’re good at it, you can aim for the bullseye; if you’re everyone else, just sticking it feels like a momentous accomplishment. 

“Anybody can do it,” said Lumberjaxe’s Kerry Moher, interviewed mere days before the beginning of social distancing. “And nobody’s that good at it to start.” 

Three years ago, when the sport of axe throwing was in its infancy, Moher could see that it would be a hit, and filed for a trademark on the Lumberjaxe name in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Lumberjaxe’s first location opened in Athens, Georgia. As the concept caught on stateside, expansion into Canada was the next logical step, and Moher opened the Ottawa location at 250 City Centre last August.

“At the time that I trademarked Lumberjaxe, in the U.S. there was one axe-throwing place. Now there’s between three and five hundred,” Moher said. 

“We were anticipating that this would be hipster central,” Moher says, of Lumberjaxe’s clientele. He’s been surprised at who ends up drawn to it. Instead, “it’s probably 60/40 female.” 

Axe-throwing started as an improvised way to have fun, Moher says, but quickly grew into something bigger. 

“They were literally doing it in someone’s backyards, and eventually went to a warehouse and said ‘hey, this is going well,’ and then came up with some rules,” he explains. “It grew from one location, to a couple, and then all of the sudden people started to do it, it was fun, and it started to morph from there.” There are now two international federations (the International Axe Throwing Federation and the World Axe Throwing League, if you were wondering), and more spots opening every month. As of mid-March, things were looking good for the axe-throwing world.

06-07-20-_DSF4705The Lumberjaxe Bar, moved outdoors, on June 30, 2020.

And then COVID hit. For a business premised on shared axe handles, close and often boisterous groups, with a kind of bon-vivant Paul Bunyon atmosphere, physical distancing restrictions deep-six’ed that momentum pretty quickly. 

But it didn’t snuff it out entirely. “Some of our regulars wanted to still throw,” Moher said. After a few weeks, Lumberjaxe started selling backyard target kits — flat-packed like an IKEA cabinet, and easy to assemble at home. “All you need is a drill. Takes you about 10 minutes to put it together,” Moher says. 

Now, the place is inching into reopening.

For now, they’ve moved it outside, back to the sport’s roots, by setting up an outdoor lane beside a parking-lot patio. It is, admittedly, a pivot: for now, the axe-throwing is something to do while you drink from the Lumberjaxe Bar, and eat from the takeout kitchen company (called, literally, The Kitchen) with whom Lumberjaxe co-leases the space.

Eventually, the plan is to reopen a couple lanes indoor, as much as distancing permits, and opening up bookings to smaller groups than usual. “What we’re seeing in our Athens location is that like, date nights are big,” Moher says. 

06-07-20-_DSF4753
 
Where do things go from here, for a place like Lumberjaxe? Like anything, the answer can be summed up like, ‘who knows?’ The corporate parties that helped establish it feel like distant fantasies, the big birthday parties and team-building afternoons shunted into the pile of things we remember doing, but aren’t exactly pencilling into the calendar anytime soon. 
“In the end, we thought, this isn’t the time to be pushing the envelope,” Moher says. “Come get some great food, eat on a neat patio.”
So they’re keeping it simple: they’ll book small group reservations, but the draw has changed. Have a beer, catch up with friends on a well-distanced patio, and if the lumberjack mood strikes you, for $5 you can buy 10 throws. 

“People are coming out. They’re looking for something to do,” says Moher. “We’re a business that can still make things work.” 

The road back, for many businesses, will be long — but the city’s small businesses are filled with great ideas, adaptations and creativity, and it’s what will help us all move forward. If you know of a business (or if you own one) working hard to build and serve their community, even under tough circumstances, Ottawa Matters wants to hear about it. Email delamont.kieran@gmail.com.




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