Half-a-million. That’s how many Lego bricks Cincinnati native Daniel Johnson has in his basement. And on the main level of his home? You’ll find things like a map of the region, a typewriter, and even a family portrait made of Legos. An extreme fanatic from a young age, Johnson is now channeling his lifelong passion to build his first business venture: The Brickery Café & Play (The Brickery), the first Lego-inspired café in the U.S.
After holding several different jobs over the years and never finding true gratification, Johnson decided life’s too short to be miserable while working – something we spend one-third of our lives doing – and that a change was vital. So, last spring he put pen to paper and started spending any free moment he could designing his vision for the immersive concept.
Until this past January, Johnson served as a product manager at a local software company before he, like thousands of others across the country, fell victim to the tech layoffs. When it happened, he thought, “It’s Playtime,” (a slogan that’s been around since Lego’s inception in 1932) and shifted his entire focus to The Brickery. Johnson signed a lease in February at Newport on the Levee and has kept his head down ever since, striving to open this year. Combining shopping, dining, and entertainment under one roof, The Brickery will boast three main components: a kids play and discovery area; a café serving light refreshments; and a retail space with new and used Legos for sale.
Levee crew, meet your new neighbor Daniel Johnson in this week’s Levee Life Spotlight. And let your imaginations run wild about what’s to come as we explore the space under construction on Instagram.
What sparked your love of all things Lego?
As a kid growing up in Cincinnati, I discovered a zest for building and design and dreamt of being an architect. Lego was the easiest and most satisfying way to feed that desire back then. As I got older, I realized that it’s not just a creative outlet for kids, but it appeals to adults as well. I love that Lego brings everyone together, including my family!
Do you have a favorite Lego set you’ve ever completed? How long did it take to build?
Definitely the Super Mario 64 Question Block. It’s 2,064 pieces packed with hidden game references and other surprises for fans – it’s very nostalgic for me. The structure itself is so clever and it’s a perfect display piece. Took me about eight hours to complete it. And to think, that could have been a full day’s work!
How did the idea for Brickery Café & Play come to be?
April 2022, the idea popped into my head as I was getting into the shower: “Lego café – it’s like a board game café, but with Lego!” I leaned into it and was excited to find that friends and family thought it was a good idea, too. I wanted to create a place where guests come for tactile escapism, to have something in their hands that isn’t a phone and something to focus on that isn’t a screen. Combining my love for what some refer to as “the bane of my foot’s existence” with my marketing and project management experience plus a knack for creativity and the rest is history!
What will The Brickery experience be like?
The first thing you’ll see upon visiting The Brickery is massive and kinetic Lego sculptures highlighting local landmarks or other works of art displayed in the windows. On the inside, a mural painted by Cincinnati-based artist Jonathan Queen will adorn the wall, and every seating area is going to have Lego bricks on it for building with provided instructions or whatever can be dreamt up. If guests like what they create, they can buy it and take it home. Our play and discovery area, designed for kids aged five to 12, will fill one-third of the store and feature some of the biggest, most elaborate Lego sets from a variety of universes, including Super Mario, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney. Café offerings include hand-crafted flavored sodas, mocktails, teas and coffees, fresh-baked desserts, and other snacks. In addition, there will be a private event space for birthday parties, company meetings, and elevated date nights. Community-driven activations such as Lego Masters watch parties, Sip and Brick classes, themed build tournaments and more will also be hosted regularly.
Is the concept connected to the official Lego brand in any way?
We’ll have a wholesale deal with Lego’s exclusive U.S. distributor, but it is not connected to the official brand in any way. But fun fact! I am a certified facilitator of the Lego Serious Play training method and have a background in learning, curriculum design, and professional development. Which essentially means that businesses can book our event room for corporate training and team-building exercises, and I’ll lead them in different workshops designed to encourage problem-solving, use of your imagination, and more.
For people who think Legos are just for kids, what would you say to them?
I would ask them to just try building something first. Lego has something for everyone, whether you’re into music, architecture, muscle/sports cars, Star Wars or Marvel, and the list goes on. My guess is that, more often than not, people will find that it’s therapeutic, relaxing, and satisfying. It’s a system where everything fits. Everything makes sense. And that’s hard to find these days.
We’ll chat with Chad Ellingboe, CEO of Galley Group, on progress happening at The Galley on the Levee in our next Levee Life Spotlight.