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Two couples turned an axe-throwing hobby into a million-dollar business

·West Coast Correspondent

Nestled between a thermal grease manufacturer and an elderly services center in central New Jersey lies Stumpy’s Hatchet House, America’s first axe-throwing facility.

Located in Eatontown, Stumpy’s opened in April 2016. Last year, Stumpy’s generated $1.15 million in sales and nearly 40,000 customers have walked through its doors to-date. You must be 21 or older to enter Stumpy’s, which operates on a BYOB policy — no hard liquor, though.

Axe-throwing has been around for centuries, originally a fighting technique during the middle ages. Recreational spots to chuck axes at a bull’s eye (think darts, but more intense) gained popularity in Canada in 2015, and the U.S. has been following suit. Now, you can find axe-throwing all over the country — in Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C,. Denver, Boston, and New York, to name a few cities.

A happy axe-ident

Stumpy’s is the brainchild of two couples — Stu and Kelly Josberger and Mark and Trish Oliphant. They were having a barbeque on a summer night in 2015 after spending the day sailing. Mark and Stu had been chopping wood for a fire, and out of boredom decided to throw the hatchet they were using against a log as a target.

“They were having such a good time, that by the time we joined them, we thought it was a lot of fun too. This is just a simple, organic game that happened in the backyard, and maybe people would want to do it as a recreation. We joked about it a little bit, and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we’re gonna do for our business,’” Kelly told Yahoo Finance.

The Oliphants and Josbergers opened Stumpy’s in April 2016.
The Oliphants and Josbergers opened Stumpy’s in April 2016.

At the time, Trish, 59, was working in marketing at Ralph Lauren and her husband Mark, 60, was a union carpenter. Kelly, 51, was a principal of a middle school and her husband Stu, 53, worked as a technician. All of them have since retired and are focusing on Stumpy’s full-time.

They had the idea, the capital and the passion, but there was only one hitch — unsurprisingly, landlords wanted nothing to do with axes and alcohol.

“We didn’t really have the luxury of choosing exactly where we wanted our location. We had to find a landlord that would take us, as a hatchet throwing venue. Being the first, it was hard to find a landlord that would say, ‘Yeah, sure. You can come throw hatchets in my building,’ ” said Trish.

“We were turned down quite a few times for locations. We’re really happy that we ended up here in Eatontown. It ended up being the perfect location for us. We’re right in the center of New Jersey. We have a lot of shore traffic in the summertime, and business has been great,” she added.

Stumpy’s secret sauce

Thanks to Mark’s experience in carpentry and woodworking, Stumpy’s was open within a few weeks of securing the location.

He converted the space, previously a boxing gym, into a warm, inviting haven, with a cozy cabin-in-the-woods feel. With wood-paneled walls, plush leather couches, massive farm tables and string lights, every detail has been meticulously thought out. Take, for instance, the individual lanes aptly named in “pit” varietals — e.g. “Peach Pit,” “Brad Pit,” “Arm Pit.” The Oliphants’ dogs are regular fixtures at the front counter and roam throughout the facility.

The couples decided not to build a kitchen — or serve hot food — but customers can order delivery from local restaurants. According to the company, the average customer spends $61.64. With folks happily entertained by throwing hatchets at a painted piece of wood, Stumpy’s margins are great.

Pricing per person ranges from $20 to $40, depending on how many are in your group. The maximum amount of time you can stay is two hours. The first 15 minutes are dedicated to a training session with a throwing coach, who instructs on safety and monitors the game. Stumpy’s has yet to report any accidents.

Stumpy’s Hatchet House before & after renovation.
Stumpy’s Hatchet House before & after renovation.

America’s first axe-throwing franchise

Initially, the Josbergers and Oliphants had no intention to make Stumpy’s a franchise. But, they started getting flooded by franchise requests. To-date they have received 234 franchise requests across the U.S. as well as three overseas requests. They have sold six franchises so far — two in New Jersey, two in Texas, one in Florida and one in Pennsylvania. Six other franchise sales are currently in process, and they expect to have eight franchises in the U.S. open by the end of 2018.

Stumpy’s did not share the minimum net worth that franchisees must have, but suggested that applicants need to show they have access to capital.

Jen Runyon, 40, was one of Stumpy’s first customers in April 2016. She enjoyed the experience so much that she was browsing the website, looking to buy a gift card for a friend a few months later, when she noticed that Stumpy’s was starting to franchise. Runyon was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years before rejoining the workforce as a legal assistant 17 months ago. But, she was itching for a change.

I was looking for that break and something that I could do on my own. I love socializing and I’m not a 9-to-5 desk person. So, Stumpy’s fit everything I was looking for,” she told Yahoo Finance.

So, she and her boyfriend applied to become a Stumpy’s franchisee and plan to open a location in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, within the next few months.

“We’ve researched the competitors, but nobody seems to have a model like Stumpy’s. I don’t want to go with the wild crowd, and I think this is a nice look. Everyone here is just so happy and generous. And they’re constantly sold out,” said Runyon.

Axe-throwing has grown in popularity across the U.S. Two New Jersey couples are cashing in on the craze.
Axe-throwing has grown in popularity across the U.S. Two New Jersey couples are cashing in on the craze.

A hatchet for every milestone

While axe throwing may seem like a one-and-done type of activity, 17% of customers have returned to Stumpy’s.

“We want men, women, adults of all ages, to come here and really feel comfortable. You don’t have to be real strong, good at throwing. You could just come and have a good time and enjoy the atmosphere. We purposely set out to make this model one where females would be just as comfortable coming here and hanging out at the hatchet house as males would. Our business is about 50/50 female to male ratio,” said Trish.

Mark recalls Mother’s Day last year, when four generations of a family came to throw.

“There was a daughter, mother, grandma, and great grandma, who was 93 years old. We were scared at first, but after two or three throws, she got it. Stumpy’s was packed and when she got the bull’s eye, she ran over to ring the bell, and the whole place went nuts,” he said.

Stumpy’s is now a destination for everything from company-sponsored events, retirement parties, and everything in between. There’s even “ex” parties, to celebrate an ex-job, an ex-boss, or an ex-spouse. There are even gender reveals for baby parties, where couples put a black balloon up and someone at the party throws the hatchet to break the balloon, which reveals blue or pink confetti inside.

“Other axe-throwing businesses popping up has only enhanced our business. We’ve gotten busier since word’s gotten out about hatchet throwing, because it is so much fun to do and so competitive,” said Trish. “We think this is America’s new bowling.”

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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