Comebacks is a series about businesses that have made dramatic turnarounds during the pandemic, in partnership with Slate’s Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism podcast.
When the pandemic first came for America’s hatchet houses, America stopped, surveyed the damage, and thought, “Yeah, that sort of makes sense.” For millennia, after all, human beings had filled their hatchet-throwing needs by hurling the tools at stumps, or small game, or one another if they were angry and drunk enough. Only over the past decade had this outdoor non-pastime become an indoor recreational activity; only over the past few years had hatchet-throwing facilities begun to pop up in cities and towns across America, while hatchet-throwing tournaments began to populate the lowest-leverage hours on ESPN spinoff channels. In March and April, when simply visiting the supermarket felt like indulging a death wish, an indoor hatchet-throwing facility seemed definitionally inessential. If ever there was a corporate pandemic casualty that the world wouldn’t particularly miss, it was the hatchet house.
So when Stumpy’s Hatchet House, a fast-growing American chain of hatchet-throwing centers, decided to temporarily shutter all of its locations last spring, I personally did not give them much of a chance at long-term survival. Who knew how much time might pass before people would feel safe gathering indoors to hurl hatchets at wooden boards?
Today, though, Stumpy’s is still here—and, what’s more, the chain is expanding. The brand’s survival speaks to the surprising resilience of the low-budget experiential adult entertainment sector at a time when bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and performance venues are reeling. From hatchet houses to escape rooms, many smaller-scale fun palaces have defied the odds and have survived the pandemic thus far intact, if not entirely unscathed. How’d they make it through?
I first (and last) wrote about hatchet throwing in 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration, when Slate sent me to the original Stumpy’s Hatchet House in Eatontown, New Jersey—at the time, the first and only indoor hatchet-throwing facility in the United States. Tucked away in a nondescript industrial park, the venue was the brainchild of two New Jersey couples who, while casting about for a fun project to pursue together in their retirement, decided that what the world really needed was a place where untrained and unskilled suburbanites could huck hatchets at wooden targets while drinking beers indoors.
Stumpy’s was the result: a BYOB facility with several “throwing pits” where individuals or groups could pass the time in a brand-new sort of indoor adventure. Very few people walked into Stumpy’s with significant previous experience in throwing metal hatchets at targets. (”It’s not like ‘She’s good, she threw hatchets in college,’ ” one of the co-founders told me in 2016.) But the novelty was a big part of the appeal. Hatchet throwing was a totally new entertainment experience. It was like darts, but outdoorsy and sort of violent, and it caught on with a public desperately seeking an alternative to the same old team-building excursions and first-date venues. Today, rates at Stumpy’s locations across the country start at $25 per person for an hour’s throwing time. (If you’re a “non-thrower,” you’ll only pay $15.) While the original Stumpy’s and some other franchise locations remain BYOB only, other outlets sell beer and wine to their guests, which adds another revenue stream. If you’re throwing a big party, or are an eccentric millionaire, you can generally rent out the entire facility, too.
The rise of Stumpy’s was very broadly concurrent with the rise of other low-budget entertainment facilities for grown-ups, like escape rooms and happy-hour painting studios. Over the course of the past decade, these sorts of venues have sprung up everywhere, without much fanfare, filling entertainment needs that they themselves created. They were rarely found on the main drag of their towns and cities, because walk-in traffic was never central to their business models, though they would often advertise aggressively on Facebook; instead, people sought them out and reserved their sessions in advance. (On their website, Stumpy’s actively discourages walk-in traffic.) It turns out that plenty of adults wanted more from a night on the town than simply sitting and staring at a screen or a bartender for two hours. These semi-active adults had been underserved by the broader entertainment market—and once the market began to fill their needs, these people were willing to spend.
In its first year in business, according to a Franchise Times article from 2017, the original Stumpy’s raked in between $30,000 and $50,000 per month, with minimal marketing and an out-of-the-way location. When I visited in 2016, the co-owners were about to meet with a franchising attorney who saw growth potential in their low-overhead, high-upside concept. Plenty of entrepreneurs agreed. Today, according to the company’s website, there are 27 Stumpy’s Hatchet Houses spread across 11 states, with at least 10 more facilities on the way. Some of these outlets had their grand openings during the pandemic, which to my mind takes a real leap of entrepreneurial faith.
It was never a given that any of these outlets would survive the pandemic. After all, ax throwing isn’t exactly the sort of pastime that pivots well to digital. “It was honestly terrible, because there was nothing we could do,” the general manager of a Maryland Stumpy’s outlet told the Frederick News-Post, speaking of the location’s initial struggles to stay relevant during the shutdown. “We tried to offer, people could buy gift cards … but we really didn’t have anything to offer curbside or delivery.” Though the company tried early on to create online content that would continue to engage their customers—posts featuring staffers “doing exercises to get their axe throwing skills on point,” for example, as a Stumpy’s co-founder told Fortune in April—hatchets wouldn’t seem to have any natural advantage over any of the other nonsense activities (trampolines, weird baked goods) that go viral on Instagram and TikTok.
So if social media didn’t save Stumpy’s, then what did? First, the franchises seem to have fairly low operational costs relative to a restaurant, a movie theater, or a Dave & Buster’s. You’ve got your hatchets, your targets, and your commemorative T-shirts—that’s more or less it. They don’t have a lot of inventory that will expire or depreciate, nor do they have massive staffing costs. Even the franchise fees are low—according to the Franchise Times article, the initial fee was a relatively piddly $30,000. All of which meant that Stumpy’s location owners were relatively well-situated to hunker down and wait things out.
When the world began to reopen last summer, Stumpy’s benefited from the fact that people had a lot of pent-up aggression that they needed to expend. “It feels good right now to throw something and maybe have it stick in a target,” a Stumpy’s co-founder told Fox Business in August. Stumpy’s locations across the country saw an uptick in business from people looking to release stress that had built up during months of home confinement and limited social interactions with others. “We had no idea what kind of response we’d have, but it was overwhelming despite the limits of COVID because everyone was looking for something to do,” said the co-owner of a Waco, Texas, Stumpy’s franchise that had its grand opening in July.
It also helped that it’s pretty easy to socially distance inside a Stumpy’s, especially when the locations are operating at reduced capacity. (As far as I can tell, none of the Stumpy’s locations have added outdoor hatchet-throwing options, which makes sense, because throwing hatchets in some random parking lot seems very unsafe and uninsurable.) “We’re definitely trying to get it out there to people that we’ve got a very safe space. Even though it is indoors, it’s wide open space,” the general manager of the Frederick, Maryland, Stumpy’s told the local paper in July. The “pits” in which the hatchets are thrown are spacious, and strangers aren’t paired up with other strangers; you throw with the group you came with. “Part of the Stumpy’s brand is to have a private throwing pit atmosphere, so that way you kind of feel like you’re at home,” said the owner of a Manchester, Connecticut, Stumpy’s, which opened in November.
All of these factors combined to help the brand stay afloat during a dark year. “Everyone is moving along,” one of the co-owners told CNBC in October. “Business is up 75 percent since we reopened in July. It’s not where we want to be yet, but, of course, we’re looking at every week and noticing increases and we’re really happy about that.” In this ongoing annus horribilis, it’s completely sensible that people want to do things that are stupid, violent, and, despite it all, relatively safe.