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So Very Ax-citing
WORDS Tara Crutchfield PHOTOGRAPH Amy Sexson | Mar 1, 2021 Updated Mar 1, 2021
There’s nothing like a strong cup of coffee to keep you sharp in the morning, well that and maybe an airborne axe or two. Joyce and Kraig Woodrow opened Ax-Caliber Axe Venue and Coffee House, the first of its kind for Polk County, in downtown Lakeland last fall. The pandemic presented challenges, but Joyce says they’ve been ‘blessed’ in their venture despite them all. “We’re both entrepreneurs. We always have been,” said Joyce. She hails from South Florida, Kraig from New Jersey. They moved to Polk County in 1999. Kraig is a software engineer, and Joyce has been running her own fitness company, Fit for Life Ministries, for about ten years.
“We started the coffee business about four and a half years ago,” she said. “Everybody in our family loves to drink coffee.” Every Saturday morning, the Woodrow’s would go on a coffee date to Starbucks. Joyce said, “I remember sitting there one day saying to my husband, ‘We need to have our own coffee company.’”
For some time, the family had desires to open an indoor gun range and coffeehouse. They dubbed their coffee brand, Caliber. “All of our blends are based on the strength of the caliber,” she said. “We found a local roaster here in Lakeland […]. We told them how we wanted our coffee to taste and that we wanted it to be organic with no chemicals, all water washed. They were able to accommodate us. […] They designed blends based on our palate.”
Their blends – from free-trade farms around the world – include a selection of bullet-themed names like their 22 Cal Decaf, 9mm Breakfast Blend, 45 Cal Medium Smooth, 357 Magnum Dark, and Kraig’s favorite, the 300 Blackout Extra Dark. Until they opened Ax-Caliber, Caliber Coffee Company was exclusively online. “We wanted to open something up that was going to be fun for Polk County for people to come to.” The gun range concept shifted into an axe throwing venue and coffeehouse.
Ax-Caliber opened in late November, with their grand opening on December 4, 2020. “It was quite a challenge,” Joyce said, looking back on the journey. When they signed the contract for their building, COVID-19 wasn’t at the forefront of public attention in the states yet. A month or two later, everything changed. Kraig was furloughed, and Joyce left her company for six months. Holding their breath, the pair carried on with their plans to open the downtown axe throwing venue. “It was this uncertainty and not knowing what was going to happen,” she said. The Woodrow’s hit a snag when ordering supplies to furnish and stock Ax-Caliber, with shipments being continuously pushed back due to the virus. They initially intended to open in August, but supplies weren’t coming. “You can’t open a restaurant without equipment, and you can’t open anything without furniture,” she said.
“Finally, things started falling into place, but it wasn’t until November. […] We just prayed a lot and asked God to continue to keep those doors open, and whatever was going to happen was going to happen. We decided on November 20 that we were going to go for it.”
“We have been blessed beyond words,” she said. “We’ve had some ups and downs. There have been a lot of learning curves during this time with COVID.” Joyce and the team are taking those learning curves in stride, doing all they can to keep staff and guests safe by implementing a mask policy for their employees and keeping the establishment sanitized. Everything was different than it might have been, had they opened any other year – staff capacity, hours of operation, even menu size.
The Ax-Caliber motto is ‘Coffee of a higher caliber.’ Joyce said, “We wanted to make sure whatever we brought to Lakeland or Polk County was also of a higher caliber. When you visit Ax-Caliber, everything from the beginning when you walk into the door, to the time you order your food, what you taste, what you drink, and how you play – we also want to make sure it’s of a higher caliber and that you leave here feeling that you were really taken care of.”
Food and Drink
In addition to their full café menu of Caliber Coffee drinks prepared by trained baristas, Ax-Caliber serves beer, wine, and a full axe pun-laden menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you’re looking for a pick-me-up and calm-me-down all wrapped in one drink, check out their coffee lager– 300 Damn Kids, brewed by The Florida Brewery. The name comes from the 300 Blackout Coffee it’s made with and an affectionate reference to their kids, an inside joke amongst the Woodrow family.
“When our kids come over, and they eat us out of house and home, my husband always looks in the refrigerator and goes, ‘Those damn kids ate all my food.’ He’s always joking with them all the time like, ‘Here come those damn kids again.’ We love, love, love our kids and grandkids, and it’s a big joke in the house. They even write on their cards sometimes, ‘Love, your damn kids.’”
‘Fresh’ and ‘tasty’ are words Woodrow used to describe the items on Ax-Caliber’s curated menu. The team prides itself on their food – making many of their dips, sauces, pastries, quiche, and other goods like turkey pot pie made with their turkey cooked in-house. Guests can enjoy soups, salads, sandwiches, and shareables down to a little something for your sweet tooth.
A Sharp Atmosphere
Home away from home is the vibe the Ax-Caliber owners were shooting (or should I say axe throwing) for, and Joyce’s interior design hit the bullseye. “When I designed it, I wanted it to feel industrial but not hard. I wanted it to feel just like if you were to go home and enjoy a nice drink or sit and listen to some music, and I wanted it to feel comfortable.”
Joyce envisioned a space for everyone – an atmosphere that welcomed couples and college students, professionals, and people from all walks of life. She chose a mix of materials to achieve the cozy industrial look. Materials like leather and cloth, wood, iron, steel, and stone, work in tandem, radiating a welcoming warmth to customers.
From the dreamy lighting and comfy couches to table games, televisions, and pool tables, Ax-Caliber can be a place for camaraderie or a quiet cup of coffee and a book.
Getting the Axe
Lakelanders and lumberjacks can walk in to enjoy a one-hour axe throwing session or reserve two hours ahead of time. Guests are greeted at the axe check-in area, where they sign a waiver (which can be done on your phone by scanning a QR code) and assigned a personal Ax-pert and pit.
The venue, which is an official venue of the World Axe Throwing League, has seven pits made up of two lanes each, for a total of 14 lanes. Because of the pandemic, guests may sometimes have to wait for an axe throwing session as safety guidelines don’t allow for shared pits beyond your group. At your pit, your Ax-pert will explain safety guidelines, answer questions, and demonstrate how to throw. “They want to make sure that you have a great time and that you stay safe doing it,” said Joyce.
Closed toes shoes are mandatory to participate. No worries if you show up in a pair of flip-flops, Ax-Caliber offers pink Crocs (yes, even for you manly men) and disposable socks. Scorecards are available, as well as different games to play throughout your session. “We are working on a scoring system right now that will be up on the tv screen,” said Joyce. You can order food and drinks before you start throwing or ask your Ax-pert to have someone take your order. You can enjoy your meal right there in the pit.
Running an axe throwing venue means plenty of maintenance. “We have a sawmill where we make all our targets,” said Joyce. They also sharpen the axes and change out handles regularly.
“It’s very empowering, […] You come in and think, ‘I can’t do this. There’s no way I can do this.’ And then you stick the axe in the wood,” she said. Exhilaration is par for the course with throwing axes. “If you’re not yelling, then you’re not having fun.”
The Woodrows seem to be succeeding in their mission to bring something new and fun to the county. About Ax-Caliber’s customers, Joyce said, “When they walk through our doors, it’s their house. It’s our house to them, and we welcome them as our family.”
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