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‘It’s not as crazy as it seems’: Ax-throwing venues in D.C. to start serving alcohol

Jennifer Stanton, 39, of Orlando, tries out a large hatchet at Bad Axe Throwing in the District. The business is part of a growing number of throwing establishments in the District and across the nation.
Jennifer Stanton, 39, of Orlando, tries out a large hatchet at Bad Axe Throwing in the District. The business is part of a growing number of throwing establishments in the District and across the nation. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Washingtonians looking to have a beer, unwind with friends and hurl hatchets at a wall will soon get their chance.

Competitive ax-throwing company Kraken Axes was awarded a liquor license late last month, becoming the first Washington establishment to let patrons mix booze and sharp weaponry.

Two other venues plan to do the same. Kick Axe Throwing has also secured a liquor license — though it is not expected to open for business before spring 2019.

“The immediate reaction is: ‘You’re throwing axes? That sounds crazy!’ ” said Mario Zelaya, president and CEO of Bad Axe Throwing, which has a venue in Northeast Washington. “And then when you introduce alcohol, people think you’re really nuts. . . . But we haven’t had any injuries — unless you count paper cuts.”

In an attempt to warm city officials to the idea of alcohol in the ax-throwing range, the venues have all vowed to follow safety protocols, including having trained coaches in each lane where axes are being thrown and separating the bar from the throwing zone.

Kick Axe serves liquor at its Brooklyn venue, while Bad Axe has a liquor license at a handful of its other U.S. locations.

Ax throwing, a sport typically found at lumberjack competitions and Renaissance festivals, involves chucking hatchets at wooden targets and has taken off throughout the country over the past year.

It’s like bowling, experts like to say. But sharper.

Kraken Axes operates a location by Audi Field and another, its flagship, in the District’s Park View neighborhood. That one is closed for renovation and will reopen in December, owner Steuart Martens said.

Martens said he plans to use the District as a test case for Kraken’s business plan before it decides to expand nationally. Already, several locations are set to open on the Eastern Seaboard: in Baltimore, Boston, Richmond and parts of Florida.

But owners said if it fails here, it probably won’t stand a chance anywhere else. Washingtonians, it turns out, seem to like more eccentric entertainment.

“You can do all the research and analysis you want on cities and demographics, but there’s this extra factor in places like D.C., and honestly, we don’t know what it is,” said Zelaya, who owns two dozen venues across the United States and in Canada. “Washington has what we call the ‘ax-factor.’ ”

Most ax-throwing venues offer variations on a theme: Patrons are met by a coach or trainer who will go through safety protocols with first-timers and teach them how to throw. Most places call these trainers their ax masters or “ax-perts.”

Puns are big with the ax-throwing crowd.

At Kick Axe Throwing, owner and CEO Ginger Flesher-Sonnier said patrons are limited to beer, wine and malt beverages and will be served only three throughout the time they are throwing. Staff will be trained to recognize signs of drunkenness, and are told to cut people off and ask them to leave the lane if they appear unable to throw safely.

D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board member James Short Jr., who represents Ward 7 under the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), quizzed Flesher-Sonnier on Kick Axe’s safety features during her appearance before the group last year.

“The screening and the fencing along the side walls will be a minimum of 10 feet high. And within each lane will be the ax-pert, and they will never leave the lane or allow anybody into the lane unless they are invited in,” Flesher-Sonnier told him.

She added that axes are never allowed to be handed off between patrons. They must be placed into a stump before leaving, and the next group comes in and pulls them out of it, she said.

“So there are a bunch of safety measures that our liability insurance carrier is making us follow,” Flesher-Sonnier told the board.

Assuring District officials that the only injury she has seen suffered in an ax-throwing venue was when somebody in Canada dropped an ax on their foot and broke a toe helped Flesher-Sonnier go through the liquor-licensing process with relative ease.

When Kick Axe opens its doors next year, the venue will be able to start serving beer and wine right away.

Kraken Axes had a more difficult time.

Before it was granted a license, Kraken Axes was fined $12,000 by the ABRA for committing six violations, including allowing alcohol to be sold at the property illegally, allowing another company to host events that included alcohol on the premises and attempting to interfere with an ABRA investigation.

Though the agency reprimanded Anna Valero, who runs the Park View flagship, the ABRA eventually agreed to grant Kraken Axes a license. The business may begin serving alcohol once the fines are paid in full.

Valero, who also owns Drink the District, a business that runs events around the Washington area, declined to comment.

“The District of Columbia is . . . a place of second chances,” Kraken Axes’s attorney Andrew Kline told the liquor licensing board last month before the ABRA approved the business’s permit. “This is a recognition that there are issues that cannot be repeated, and Ms. Valero is aware of that.”

Bad Axe Throwing has occupied a warehouse in the Langdon neighborhood of Northeast Washington for about a year. Some other Bad Axe locations allow patrons to bring their own alcohol, though the BYOB practice is officially banned in the District.

Still, customers have been known to bring beers to the venue, an issue Zelaya called “concerning” and attributed to miscommunication with staff.

“That isn’t allowed,” he said. “I think part of what happens is we get new hires and they see some locations, like our Dallas location, allow it. They might not realize that doesn’t apply here.”

Bad Axe Throwing has not yet applied for its District liquor license, though Zelaya said he intends to do so. The company recently won licenses in Oklahoma City and Denver.

“I think some people think of us as these crazy Canadians bringing our axes down to the U.S. and throwing them around, and they’re like, ‘That’s so dangerous!’ But you know what? You guys carry guns, and I don’t know a single person in Canada who owns a gun,” Zelaya said. “Really, it’s not as crazy as it seems.”