The owners of Arkansas’ first indoor axe-throwing venue have made a successful exit.
Bryce Paden, Trent Carrender and Colby Ritter, co-founders of Urban Forest Axe House in Bentonville, sold the business in December. Paden said the new ownership group, led by Charles Sanderson of Alabama, operates multiple axe-throwing and indoor recreation concepts in Alabama and Georgia.
Financial terms were not disclosed. Urban Forest operates in leased space at 1706 S.E. Walton Blvd. in Bentonville.
“Our staff will stay in place, and some will see their roles take on new growth with the expansion,” Paden said. “Our ownership will not be involved in the operations in the future.”
Urban Forest, the first facility in Arkansas to be certified by the World Axe Throwing League (WATL), opened in December 2018. Paden originally planned to expand the business throughout Northwest Arkansas but will leave that growth strategy to someone else.
“We were a profitable business by the second month,” Paden told the Business Journal in August 2019. “And we’ve been regularly beating our [financial] projections.”
Paden, who competed in the World Axe Throwing Championship this past December in Atlanta, said the new owners would leverage the Urban Forest brand and operations to launch new concepts in Northwest Arkansas and across the Southeast.
“We think it’s pretty cool that someone noticed what was happening here in our little corner of Arkansas and wanted to take that to communities across the country,” Paden said.
Last year, the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce named Urban Forest as its Emerging Small Business of the Year and Paden as its Small Business Owner Under 30 of the Year.
Paden, a Missouri native and University of Arkansas graduate, co-founded Bentonville tech firm i2i Labs with Carrender in September 2017. The same month, he left a business development position with Store No. 8, Walmart’s technology startup incubator. Paden said he transitioned out of i2i Labs when Urban Forest took off.
“Urban Forest had upwards of 20 employees, and our revenue and expansion work required full-time focus,” Paden said.
Paden said he’s not sure what’s next professionally.
“I have been wrapped up in the acquisition process and am going to take some time to slow down and evaluate things once that is fully wrapped up,” he said. “I will always be an entrepreneur, but dealing with COVID-19 as a small business owner has been exhausting. I may work for someone else for a bit.”
NEW OWNER’S PLANS
Sanderson opened his first indoor axe-throwing venue in Prattville, his hometown, in October 2019. He previously operated a 24-hour gym in the space.
“I went to an axe place and thought, ‘This is great. We’ve got to bring this to Prattville,’” he said.
Sanderson closed the gym and sold the equipment. He renovated the space to operate Prattville Axe. Sanderson later opened similar venues in Wetumpka, Ala., and Columbus, Ga. He’ll open another in Savannah, Ga., this spring, the first venue under the Urban Forest flag following the ownership change. He is unsure of rebranding the existing locations.
“I would like all of them to be Urban Forest, but I’ve got to figure out a way to do that,” he said.
Sanderson said during his research to learn about axe-throwing venues, Urban Forest stuck out as a premium brand.
“They have a very refined look and branding,” he said. “The venue has a good atmosphere. That’s the feel and environment that we wanted. We want to be a premium experience. A lot of places throw stuff up quickly, and it doesn’t look good. Every business that I go into, I want to have the branding and product that’s better than everyone else.”
Sanderson said an Urban Forest location in Fayetteville is in development and will open later this year. That will give him six locations, with a goal of 10 by the end of 2021.
“We’ll have locations from Bentonville to Savannah, Georgia, and what I would like to do is connect those cities as best we can [with new locations],” Sanderson said.
He has a concept in mind that eventually evolves from axe-throwing to a new business model.
“I don’t know the lifespan of axe-throwing, but it’s hot right now,” he said. “I think we have three to five years if we do it well. Then we’ll be able to evolve into more of a hangout and introduce new activities versus an axe-throwing venue.
“Axe-throwing may not be around forever, but the business model will. It’s just going to be a different activity.”