WILLIAMSPORT – For Jennifer and Marshall Winters, celebrating the first anniversary of the Hatchet House on July 3 will be bittersweet. Neither could have imagined the unique joys and challenges their first year of business would bring. In addition to the typical trials of building a customer base from the ground up, the Winters have also had to contend with something they couldn’t have dreamed of — a global pandemic like COVID-19.
“(We) just went from making money to losing money like that,” Marshall said. “It wasn’t a fun feeling, not a fun experience.”
In January of 2019, the Winters were trying to come up with an idea for a small business they could set up in Williamsport alongside their day jobs. They noticed Facebook posts from friends who lived in bigger cities about a trendy new hobby — axe throwing — and were instantly hooked. Marshall described the experience as a classic “light bulb” moment. “We just thought, ‘Why doesn’t Williamsport have one?’”
To conduct more research on the popular pastime, the Winters took their two sons to Philadelphia for a weekend of hatchet-fueled fun. Their 12-year-old, a bonafide athlete, did well from the get-go, immediately sticking the boards with bull’s-eyes. For Jennifer and Marshall, getting the hang of things took a bit more time — especially without an “axepert” to help.
“Our first time throwing, I spent almost a whole hour picking (the axe) up off the floor,” Jennifer said. “So I know how it feels — it sucks! We absolutely didn’t want our customers feeling that way. . . (Now), it’s our goal to get everybody to stick.”
Flash forward to the early months of 2020, and business at the Hatchet House was booming. Through implementing axe-throwing leagues and relying on word-of-mouth, the Winters had grown their business to the point of breaking-record numbers of customers every weekend. The 15-employee staff of “axeperts” enjoyed long hours with the steady stream of clients. If you didn’t have a reservation on a Friday or Saturday, chances were that you wouldn’t be able to throw.
By the time March rolled around, Jennifer and Marshall had started to take notice of the growing severity of COVID-19. Initially, the couple tried to stay optimistic, continuing to book reservations in advance. However, as the situation grew worse, they realized that they would have to temporarily close. After laying off all the employees and issuing refunds to its advance bookings, the Hatchet House shut its doors on March 16.
“We held on as long as we could, but once the governor shut down non-essential businesses, we weren’t going to stay open and fight that,” Marshall said.
“It was an abrupt change,” Jennifer added. “We went from booking (weeks) ahead to nothing. It was definitely a big change of pace.”
Pausing the business they had put so much time and care into was tough for the couple. While the Hatchet House was not their primary source of income, losing the momentum they had created was emotionally and financially draining. And just because business stopped didn’t mean the bills for rent and utilities did. While the government eventually provided a loan to help with expenses, it took a long time to come through.
The Winters did their best to stay positive, choosing to focus their attention on the increased quality time with their sons. “We have two teenage boys, so every night (used to be) something,” Jennifer said. “Personally, it was just nice to slow down and get back to some more family time.”
Now, after nearly three months of shutdown, the Hatchet House is finally open for business — complete with added safety measures. Staff sanitize each station after every use, as well as the hatchets. The business is operating at half capacity, an empty lane standing between each group, with exceptions made for private parties. Mask use is optional. While the staff do not wear masks outright, they will happily put one on if the group they are leading requests it.
Getting the ball rolling again in terms of customer numbers has been tough, but Jennifer and Marshall said they are up for the challenge.
Since they reopened two weeks ago, the Hatchet House has participated in a “welcome back” block party with the Market Street Three, which also includes businesses Wine and Design and The Bar on Market, both of which operate across the street. At the party, the Hatchet House debuted its new mobile trailer. Hatchet House fans can now book private parties in the mobile setup. The novelty is becoming particularly popular with graduation parties.
As for other small businesses getting back on their feet, the Winters’ advice is to hang in there.
“The Williamsport community has been very supportive, and we all want each other to succeed,” Jennifer said. “We’re all here to help each other out, to support each other however we can.”