A few doors down from shoppers sipping on Bubble Tea and digging through clothing racks at NorthPark Mall in Davenport, Brad Cook raises a hatchet over his right shoulder.
He stands up straight, takes a deep breath and hurls the hatchet toward a wooden target, explaining, "you can't throw these like a football or baseball; you have to take a different approach." The metal hatchet barrels toward the plywood, landing, with a satisfying "thunk," a few inches below the bulls-eye.
Tucked between Von Maur and Payless ShoeSource in the mall, Cook's new business, Live Action Games — which he opened with friends this summer — is hard to miss. The store's red walls and wooden lanes are a stark contrast to the other retail stores surrounding it.
And Live Action Games, or LAG, offers something completely new for the mall and the Quad-Cities — an opportunity to test out your Paul Bunyan skills or bury the hatchet with friends. Also new for the mall, LAG features escape rooms, where players are challenged to solve puzzles leading to a temple holding the “Chalice of Life.”
Brad Cook and his brother, Ryan, joined friends Mitchell Wyat and Todd Hill to create the business. At first, the group of college students and young entrepreneurs set out only to open escape rooms, Ryan Cook said.
“We’re all friends and basically it just started as a hobby. We were doing the escape rooms around here, and eventually we were like, ‘hey, we could do this,” Ryan Cook said. “Hatchet throwing was an after-thought. It wasn’t our original intent. But we tried it out and realized how fun it is and the business kind of morphed.”
Hatchet throwing has grown increasingly popular in recent years, with ax-throwing venues and bars opening across the country, including in Chicago, Iowa City and Des Moines. The sport’s history is traced back to Canada, where one of the first ax throwing leagues was founded in 2006. With growing interest, the World Axe Throwing League was established last year.
The business owners and brothers describe the sport as “darts but with a hatchet,” with a similar scoring system and set of pub-style games.
“There’s a novelty to throwing sharp things,” Brad Cook said. “Some of it’s for the novelty, but once you get started, it’s quite skill-based.”
The oddity of throwing a hatchet in the mall has brought several first-timers to the spot, he said, but customers have returned to test how well they can hack it.
“At first we thought it was this manly sport we can do,” Ryan Cook said. “But it turns out there are a lot of women interested in it, too. We’ve had a lot of women contact us and say, ‘hey, this would be a fun date night for me and my boyfriend.’ It wasn’t something we expected.”
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The brothers said the first question they usually get asked is, “Why open this in the mall?” But for Macerich specialty leasing manager Deanna Printy, pairing mall shopping with hatchet throwing made perfect sense.
“Consumers are drawn to experiential retail when shopping for clothing or home goods and building memories through participating in an activity,” Printy said. “By bringing entertainment concepts to the centers, this helps to drive more frequent consumer visits and help build a sense of community. We are looking for great local partners to open fun shopping and entertainment concepts like Live Action Games.”
Both NorthPark and SouthPark malls have been seeking more experiential retailers, Printy said, as some traditional retail stores struggle with competition from online sales. The loss of anchor store Younkers at both malls this summer prompted a stronger push for a new kind of retail.
Ana Serafin Smith, with the National Retail Federation, previously said as technology evolves, retailers are trying to keep up by offering unique in-person experiences, or what she calls, “retail-tainment.” She said customers, especially younger shoppers, want to be more “interactive” with brands, rather than “transactional.”
NorthPark Mall also is home to Artsy Bug Studio, where customers can take classes and learn to paint. At SouthPark in Moline, people can learn how to dance at Q-C SoDa or enjoy coffee and fellowship at Greater Works Church, Printy said.
Ryan Cook said the Davenport mall’s traffic and location made NorthPark an attractive place to open the business.
“A lot of people still go to malls. During the week it’s not as busy, but during the weekends, it’s just as busy as it ever was,” he said. “This place was attractive because of the size of the location and the cost. Traditional retail will never go away because people will always crave human interaction, but times are definitely changing. Having something different gives people a reason to get out.”
As the four owners all work full-time jobs or go to college, Ryan Cook said LAG has started out with limited hours. But so far, he said the business is “paying for itself,” and more than 200 people have already tried, unsuccessfully, to make it through the escape room.
Last week, LAG hosted its first hatchet throwing tournament, and Ryan Cook said he plans to start local leagues this fall. The owners also have discussed opening more escape rooms and, possibly, a “break room,” where customers can pay to break glass.
“Right now, we’re approaching this as a new concept and seeing what we can do with a little investment,” he said. “After that, if this is successful, we do plan to expand and grow.”