Hit a bullseye and you're hooked

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Lily Cope was sure the text was a mistake — a spelling error, or some silly autocorrect.

The 37-year-old Chestnut Hill native had recently left her five-year post as executive director at Cook, the Rittenhouse kitchen-classroom, and her friends knew she was on the lookout for a new job. So when Noord/Neuf chef-owner Joncarl Lachman sent her a note saying, “I have your next gig!” she took him seriously.

“What is it?” she wrote back, and then to his response, “No, really.” But it turned out Lachman was serious:

Axe throwing.

Yes, really. Indoor competitive axe-throwing is coming to Philly.

Pending neighborhood and zoning approval, Urban Axes is setting up to launch in Kensington this summer, with Cope serving as Axe Master General. The 8,000-square-foot entertainment space at 2019 E. Boston St. (a couple blocks northwest of Frankford) will be one of the first of its kind in the U.S. The sport is apparently all the rage in Canada, where it’s a popular leisure activity and multiple amateur leagues hold province-wide competitions.

Why are people lining up to toss sharp blades at bullseyes — and is it even a good idea?

First thing to know: It’s very safe. Over the past decade, there have been fewer than five recorded injuries (all minor) across dozens of Canadian facilities serving tens of thousands of people. Like those up north, Urban Axes will be staffed by a team of “axperts” — yes, they’re hiring — who train, advise and monitor all activity. At no time will throwing be unsupervised, and no axes will leave the building (they’ll be locked up at night).

Second thing to know: It’s fun as hell.

Games are played in pairs, three rounds of five throws each
Games are played in pairs, three rounds of five throws each Credit: Danya Henninger

To play, competitors stand at a pair of fenced-in lanes, each with a painted wood plank hung at the end, and take turns hurtling hatchets at the target. Hit the center and it’s five points; slightly further away and it’s three; the outer circle gets you one. If you’re feeling lucky or are looking for a last-ditch boost in points, hit the “clutch” X-marked spot at the corners for a whopping seven. Play three rounds of five throws each, and add up the score. Winner moves onto the next tournament round, or takes the next challenger in a round-robin-style game.

Think darts but more athletic, bowling but more bad-ass, skee ball that ends with a satisfying thunk. Hit the mark just once, and it’s hard not to get hooked.

That’s what happened to Stuart Jones, Shaun Hurley, Matt Paton and Krista Poll, the quad of 30- to 45-year-old friends behind Urban Axes. They knew each other from their native Australia, where they worked together in IT and finance. Four years ago, the first two — who live in Philly — visited the second two, a husband-and-wife couple living in Toronto. They went axe throwing — and fell for it hard.

“It was something that you’d think would not be allowed!” says Jones, explaining his infatuation. “How could something this much fun be legal?”

They came up with a plan to bring the sport to the States. Philadelphia seemed perfect because it was “a great town to launch a new concept — a diverse and open community into new ideas.” But at the end of the day, Jones admits, “I just wanted somewhere to throw axes.”

After assessing the lay of the land, and investigating the legality and insurance requirements, the group decided to move forward. They formed a company called Urban Sports Ventures and got serious about creating that “somewhere to throw.” Around four months ago, Jones, a regular a Noord and Neuf, mentioned to Lachman that he needed a point person to get the project off the ground. The chef immediately thought of Cope.

“The idea just popped into my head,” Lachman says. “Lily knows the right people to create some buzz, and she has the personality to promote such an unusual experience.”

Though it took a bit of convincing — and her own visit to Toronto, aka “the birthplace of organized indoor competitive axe throwing” — Cope eventually agreed.

“It’s perfect for me,” says the former college lacrosse star, who lived in New York, Paris, London and Sydney before returning to her hometown, “because it combines operations, marketing and athleticism, plus it’s bad-ass and crazy.”

Good sportsmanship and camaraderie are key to axe throwing
Good sportsmanship and camaraderie are key — but it’s also great for getting out aggression

An outgoing personality is a must for the team Urban Axes is looking to hire, she says. “You’re with the ‘axpert’ the whole time you’re here — they teach you how to do it, give you tips while you’re throwing, and even keep score, so your whole experience is determined by how much they play it up.” To fill the initial staff of 15, she’s looking for folks with performance or entertainment backgrounds, people who can engage with a group and have a sense of humor.

“It’s really also about building community,” Cope says, noting that she’s thrilled with Urban Axes’ location and hopes to become an integral part of the neighborhood.

Improvements on the building, a former warehouse for Sazz Vintage Clothing, will be unobtrusive; aside from a street art mural on the door and modern, code-compliant bathrooms, most of the structure will be left intact. Beneath the high, wood-beam ceilings and surrounded by exposed-brick, large-windowed walls, plans calls for eight sets of dual-lane throwing corrals.

Groups of six to 20 people will book two- or three-hour time slots in advance, paying something like $35 per person, all inclusive. It’ll be BYOB for beer and wine — “It’s really hard to get drunk because you’re always busy throwing, and if you’re already intoxicated, we won’t let you in” — and food can be ordered from any nearby business. Cope is already in talks with places like Martha and Little Baby’s/Pizza Brain to develop special Urban Axes meal deals. She plans to start with evening hours only, five days a week, and see how things go from there. Daytime sessions will become available for corporate team-building events. Signup for an eight-week league is already available online.

First, though, the approval process. On June 8, the project will go in front of the East Kensington Neighbors Association. Though EKNA blessing isn’t a must, it’s something the UA folks are very interested in gaining, because “we love this neighborhood.” More critical is the Zoning Board hearing, which is slated for June 15.

“I love that it’s Philly doing this first,” Cope jokes. “It’s like a big ‘eff you’ to Brooklyn.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...