First-of-its-kind business in the U.S. opened in Newport in late 2023: The Brickery Cafe & Play

The Lego-themed play café is the first of its kind in the United States and has brought thousands of visitors to the Levee since it opened the first week of December.

This unique, playful destination is the product of local Lego enthusiast Dan Johnson's years of dreaming and scheming.

Building a life of ideas

Dan Johnson says he is "a Cincinnatian, through-and-through," even if his journey has taken him far from home.

He graduated from Amelia High School in 2002 and then headed off with a friend to a small (now defunct) Christian college in Florida. He admits he left for college without a concrete plan and, after one year, he withdrew and transferred to the local community college to pursue a small business degree.

His goal: own and run a record store.

"This is how it always works," he explains. "I'm always coming up with absurd ideas... [the record store] was one of the many, many dreams and ideas I've entertained."

Neither of the schools worked out for him. The record store career didn't work out, either. But he met his wife, Serenity, during that first year in college. They got married in 2005 and, after Serenity finished her degree, they moved to Cincinnati.

Johnson re-enrolled in college at the University of Cincinnati, majoring in Linguistics and Asian Studies. It was a better fit for him.

He didn't have a specific career in mind this time, but he figured he'd do "something creative" with the degree. He had studied Japanese in high school and really enjoyed it, so he thought he might pursue a career as a translator.

When he graduated in 2009, Johnson went to work lining up his dream job teaching English in Japan. In a "devastating" blow, the job fell through. Soon after, though, a similar job opened up in Seoul, South Korea. At the time, both Dan and Serenity were working in admin jobs they didn't love. So, they took the leap and moved abroad in February of 2010.

The Johnsons spent almost four years in South Korea. Dan worked, first, as an English teacher. Then he transitioned into a job with an ESL curriculum company, traveling abroad in the region and training English instructors how to use the materials.

Living in South Korea was a great experience for the couple. Johnson says they could have stayed there forever but raising children in the expat community got harder and harder over time (two of their three children were born in South Korea). With Dan traveling a lot, Serenity was spending a lot of time alone without a strong support system. Shortly after their second child was born, they were ready to move back home.

A Johnson family (Lego) portrait

The journey back home

The Johnsons left South Korea in 2013. The nearest they could get to Cincinnati, at first, was South Bend, Indiana, where Dan took a stateside job with the same ESL curriculum company he'd worked for in South Korea. He eventually moved into a role within their curriculum design team.

He was finishing his Master of Applied Linguistics degree at the time, so the work was, technically, in his field. But, South Bend "never felt like home," so he and Serenity welcomed the opportunity to move back to Cincinnati in 2017.

During this entire season of his career, Johnson worked from home. As a self-professed extrovert, working remotely without collaboration and community bred in him a deep sense of dissatisfaction about his work.

In 2019, Johnson was terminated at the company. He wasn't crushed. He looked for other positions in the linguistics field but couldn't find anything.

Over the next four years, he worked, first, for an auditing firm and, next, with a tech company. He was glad for the job, but he could never find fulfillment in it.

"I just couldn't force myself to care about the work," he explains. "I felt like I had to do something else, but there wasn't anything else. And that was a terrible feeling."

Right about the time that the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, the lack of creative work and the social isolation propelled Johnson into another season of what he calls “vocational desperation.” So, he occupied himself with side projects to fulfill his desire "to do something that felt important."

During that time, he labored over a 130-page script for a feature-length film about the life and death of his father who struggled with bipolar disorder.

Then, in 2022, he and Serenity released an album of songs they’d written over the ten years since they’d moved to Korea and back. They’ve been writing and performing under the name The Bell and the Hammer for the duration of their marriage but hadn't released an album since 2010.

Johnson also designed a board game with his brother-in-law and almost sold it for production.

And then he came up with the idea of a Lego cafe—"like a board game cafe, but with Legos."

He loved the cafe idea so much; he thought it must already exist somewhere. After a lot of research, though, he discovered he was wrong. There wasn't a Lego cafe within thousands of miles.

He remembers, "I thought, 'I have to do this, because I can't keep doing what I'm doing.'"

Bringing the good idea to life

The Brickery Cafe & Play is built on a pretty simple concept—it’s a place to hang out and play with Legos without the cost of buying a new set and the nuisance of storing or dismantling it once you’re finished.

Visitors can sit at a cafe table and play with the provided Lego pieces for free or “rent-to-build” a set for a reasonable fee. The menu of available sets range from 15 minute builds to complicated sets that could take two hours. Eventually, little kids will be able to play with a whole pre-built Lego village for a small fee. And the cafe offers a simple menu of drinks and snacks.

Before leaving, visitors can choose to purchase something from the small, curated offering of new Lego sets, build and buy a custom mini-figure, or even grab a whole box of pieces organized by color and type on the Lego wall.

The Brickery provides a very customizable experience and is a refreshingly affordable option for a playful day or night out.

Johnson says that The Brickery has captured a lot of hearts since it opened in December of 2023. He estimates tens of thousands of people have been through the doors since it opened. It’s been so wildly popular on the weekends and holidays that they’ve had to institute a reservation system to ensure everyone gets a chance to play.

The Brickery is in Newport on The Levee, a location known as a destination for a date night, a family outing, and a night out with friends. The cafe is positioned strategically in a spot where someone can stop in for twenty minutes or two hours before they go see a movie, visit the aquarium, grab dinner, or do some shopping.

Serenity Johnson "brightens things up a little" at the Brickery.

The space was an empty shell when they moved in; it has certainly come a long way. Part of The Brickery’s success is certainly due to the tenacity of Dan and Serenity, who have worked tirelessly together to bring the idea to life.

"Just as she had been about moving halfway around the world, Serenity was fully supportive and amazing about giving it a try," Johnson explains. “I live in the ideation of things and Serenity is the best executor of ideas I've ever known."

Johnson knows his family is gambling a lot on bringing this idea to life—"All our eggs are in this basket," he quips—but he thinks they've really honed in on a sustainable business model. After all, he says, Lego is not going away any time soon. The company is always reinventing itself and maintaining its relevance.

He believes that Lego is a toy that transcends age and ability. It's a simple, tactile tool for connection and communication. That's why his cafe is really resonating with so many people. On a personal level, he loves that his business is providing a place for friends and families to talk and play together so easily.

As for what comes next, Dan Johnson has a few more dreams and ideas up his sleeve, but that's a story for another day.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.