'People came in and had some fun': Ottawa businesses experiment amid reopenings

LumberJaxe photo
Lumberjaxe's Sean Moher at the City Centre axe-throwing facility. Photo provided

It’s probably fitting that a place where customers throw axes at wooden targets would be a trimmed-down operation in the COVID-19 era.

That’s the case at LumberJaxe, an axe-throwing facility located in the City Centre complex near Preston Street. LumberJaxe is one of a myriad of local businesses that were allowed to reopen last Friday under phase three of the province’s plan to gradually restart the economy, and co-owner Kerry Moher says he’s had to make some “major” adjustments to comply with physical distancing rules. 

The number of lanes has been reduced from five to four to allow for more space between throwers. Groups now range in size from two to six people, whereas in pre-COVID times big get-togethers were all the rage as LumberJaxe became a go-to spot for social outings and corporate bonding exercises.

“It was sort of ‘the more the merrier’ type of idea,” says the affable Moher, a partner in two LumberJaxe locations in Ottawa and Athens, Ga. “That’s what worked before COVID. 

“Now it’s more of a private space for smaller groups. That’s what we saw all weekend. Lots of twos ​– a lot of dates. A lot of people who probably haven’t been out as a couple in a long time.”

Still, despite seeing only about half the number of customers he would have on a busy summer weekend in the past, Moher says he’s happy to be back in his indoor facility. In an effort to keep some money flowing in during the lockdown, he offered portable axe-throwing lanes that could be set up in customers’ yards and later opened a pair of outdoor lanes and a patio in front of the City Centre location.

“I think at every turn, we’ve tried to be creative and flexible,” he says. “We’re not unique in that. I think businesses aren’t just sitting back and waiting to open. We're trying new things and trying to adapt as the market adapts.”

LumberJaxe was forced to shut down its indoor facility in mid-March when the Ontario government imposed tough measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Moher, who originally hoped to get the green light to reopen as part of phase two in June, says he was raring to go when phase three was announced last week.

“By the time this news rolled out, we had all of our staff prepped and our processes in place and we were ready to go,” he says, adding the facility saw a steady flow of customers in its first few days.

“We certainly weren’t overwhelmed, but we were really well supported. We made some money, some people came in and had some fun. All in all, we really couldn’t ask for a better opening weekend.” 

Return of indoor dining

Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta also welcomed the return of indoor dining at two of his three establishments last weekend. The owner of three Ottawa restaurants – Beckta Dining and Wine, Play Food & Wine and Gezellig – says customer response “has been very positive” since Play Food & Wine and Gezellig reopened.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we had tons of people come out (on opening weekend),” he says. “Everyone seems to be (going) along with all of the safety protocols in place. It’s been lovely to see the community rallying around to support us.”

Although restaurants are allowed to seat up to 50 people under the current rules, Beckta says he’s been limiting capacity to about 35 diners so far as he slowly ramps up his operations. His namesake business on Elgin Street is set to reopen Thursday, and he says he’s received “a ton of bookings already” for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 

Back at LumberJaxe, Moher says the operation can “survive” under the new regulations, but he hopes to be back at full capacity sooner rather than later.

“That still works for our business because we’re fairly high-margin,” he says of running at 50 per cent capacity. “In the short term, we just have to be a bit more of a lean, mean machine.”

Moher is quick to praise the federal and provincial governments’ response to the crisis, noting he’s benefiting from relief programs such as the federal wage subsidy, and his landlord, District Realty, has applied for the rent subsidy.

Business has dropped off significantly at LumberJaxe’s Georgia location since it reopened two months ago as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike in much of the southern United States. Ottawa has also seen a troubling uptick in infections recently, with Tuesday’s total of 43 new cases more than double the 20 new cases reported a day earlier.  

But Moher says he believes that overall, Ontario is taking the right approach.

“We’re actually pretty happy with how the government’s handled things,” he says.