Vincent Cantu came to drink beer, throw axes and find his inner lumberjack. Or maybe find his inner knight, judging from the suits of armor decorating TJ’s Hatchet Hangout in the castle-shaped Chiquita Plaza strip mall.
So far, though, it wasn’t going too well.
The first time Cantu threw his 2.3-pound ax, he didn’t even hit the plywood target in the new Cape Coral ax-throwing bar — the first to open in Southwest Florida. The hand ax clunked gracelessly against the wall above it, instead.
“It’s harder than you think it is!” said Cantu, 55, of Cape Coral. “I’m gonna hit that bull's-eye before the night’s up.”
It was opening night at TJ’s, to be fair, and Cantu had never thrown an ax before. But he learned quickly. And about 30 minutes in, Cantu started to get good.
Thunk! The ax blade buried itself deep in the red bull's-eye, the first of many bull's-eyes he scored Friday night. One of TJ’s ax-throwing trainers — called “axperts” — rang a nearby bell to signal his accomplishment.
Cantu grinned. “It’s just like darts!” he said.
Cantu’s smile could mean only one thing: The ax-throwing trend has finally arrived in Southwest Florida.
The world’s first ax-throwing bar opened in Ontario, Canada, in 2011, and the trend swept the United States last year with bars popping up in Miami, Tampa, Nashville, Baltimore, Detroit and many other U.S. cities.
Now that trend has hit Southwest Florida thanks to TJ’s owner Natasha Williams, who opened the Pine Island Road bar Friday with her girlfriend and business partner Jessika Lee — just in time for International Axe Throwing Day on June 13. The name "TJ’s" stands for "Tasha and Jessie."
Williams — whose family recently sold their North Fort Myers roller-skating rink, The Palace — is a Cape Coral hair stylist and former hair salon and mortgage company owner. And she was looking for a new business opportunity.
Then she and Lee learned about the sport of ax-throwing. “We came across it on TV,” Williams said. “We thought it was interesting.”
They soon started visiting ax-throwing bars in Florida, North Carolina and Philadelphia, where they trained for a day with the World Axe Throwing League, the governing body in the growing sport.
TJ’s — a WATL member — plans to start a sanctioned ax-throwing league later this year. The top 48 players logged at leagues nationwide get to go to the annual WATL championships broadcast on ESPN.
Williams remembers the first time she tried ax-throwing.
“It was awesome!” she said. “It was more fun than you think. It’s addicting once you stick it for the first time."
Like many sports, though, there’s always a slight element of danger involved —especially when you combine drinking and axes. Williams said she wants people to have fun, and ax-throwing bars are popular places for bachelor and bachelorette parties, company outings and other group events. But she wants people to stay safe, too.
That’s why a TJ’s axpert — each personally trained by Williams or Lee — gives all players a 10-minute safety briefing before they start gaming and then stays in the lane during gameplay. WATL-sanctioned rules are posted all over the bar: Wear close-toed shoes. Overhand throws only. No trick shots. You must be 18 years old or older.
On top of that, TJ’s only sells beer and wine — no liquor — and limits visitors to three drinks per visit, Williams said. But just in case, the bar also makes people sign a liability waiver, and she said she has extensive liability and accidental insurance, too.
“I can tell you that there haven’t been any major incidents, but it’s a relatively new industry,” Williams said. “Like any kind of recreational sport, there’s always a risk involved. And we try to limit that.
“You’re taught to pay attention. You’re taught to follow where the ax goes. We’ve taken every step possible in regards to safety.”
To that end, the bar was designed according to WATL standards, Williams said.
The ax-throwing area is divided into lanes separated by chain-link fencing. At the end of each lane stands a darts-like target painted on plywood with several concentric circles and a red bull's-eye in the middle.
Players stand behind a line and hurl axes down the lane, overhead, either one-handed or two-handed. The closer you get to that middle dot, the more points you score.
TJ’s employees say it takes at least 10 throws before you start getting the feel for ax throwing. “It’s all muscle memory,” said axpert Dakota Hawkinsen. “But once you start to get the hang of it, you’re gonna get excited. … It’s fun.”
The new bar, located 1242 SW Pine Island Road, is already off to a promising start. Its first weekend was booked solid, and next weekend is filling up quickly. Williams said she’s already in talks to open another ax-throwing bar in Punta Gorda.
“The industry itself is growing so rapidly,” Williams said. “So we’re definitely looking at expanding.”
Tony Beougher, 37, was one of the first people to try out TJ’s. He came there Friday on a date night with his wife and some friends. And, like Cantu and his family, it took them a while to start hitting anywhere near the bull's-eye.
“So far, so good,” he said. “It’s something new for us. We got it to stick once or twice. We’ve all got the same score: We’ve all got zeroes!”
In a neighboring lane, Cantu’s family was starting to get the hang of it. Cantu sunk the most axes, but his wife and daughters were sticking a few, too.
“It’s fun,” says his wife, Chandra Cantu. “It’s a different thing to do instead of just staying home and watching Netflix!”