One year in, Play Grounds has found its perfect blend of family, caffeine, and fun

Step into Lakewood-based Play Grounds, and you’ll see all the trappings of a neighborhood coffee shop—tasty pastries (courtesy of Southern Sweets), cozy sitting areas and tables, and whirring machines ready to whip up a hot cuppa Phoenix Coffee upon request. But explore a little further, and you’ll come across “The Fort,” a kid-friendly haven replete with play kitchen, dollhouse, train table, a “selfie” photo wall, books galore, and plenty of other things to keep pint-sized sidekicks occupied for a while.

The photo wall at Play GroundsIt’s all part of Heather Mariano’s vision to bring a family-friendly café to the Cleveland area—where parents can mix, mingle, and relax while their kids do the same. The idea sparked several years ago when Mariano left her job as a project manager for a graphic design firm to become a stay-at-home mom to her two kids.

“Going to coffee shops as a mom was challenging,” she shares. “Places were friendly, but there wasn’t really a spot for us. It was something my friends and I talked about, like ‘Wouldn’t it be great if….?’”

Ready for a new challenge, Mariano set about researching local roasters and similar cafes around the world to vet the concept. In 2016, she took another step by entering—and winning—the Startup Lakewood Ideation Challenge, landing prizes such as a free customized website and legal services. “I felt really supported throughout the process of trying to find a space, complete research, and build my business plan,” shares Mariano.

Though the process of building her business was time-consuming, Mariano knew one thing for sure: she wanted to open Play Grounds in Lakewood’s Madison district. “I had my eyes locked on Madison from the beginning,” she says. “In the last few years, with the addition of a bike lane and some structural improvements, Madison has become a more appealing place for businesses to invest time and money.”

With the space secured, Mariano worked with Beegan Architectural Design on the buildout, but the former fashion major did all of the interior design herself. “I care about aesthetics,” says Mariano.

True to form, the menu offers a "babyccino."Mariano used social media to build advance buzz for the shop, and by the time Play Grounds opened on October 23, 2017, its Facebook page already had close to 1,000 followers. One year in, the concept has indeed resonated with local families, with Facebook comments like, “My son turns 1 next week and your café was a huge part of the first-year survival!” In keeping with the family-friendly focus, the shop is closed on Sundays so that Mariano can be with her own brood.

On the heels of the one-year celebration, Mariano is expanding programming and events at the shop. This Thursday, December 6, Play Grounds will host “Play/Shop/Drink,” a holiday pop-up shop featuring local vendors such as 2 Odd Birds, Cleveland Street Glass, Lauren HB Studio, Erie & Anchor, and more. “It’s not just a holiday event,” says Mariano. “I’m hoping to do it quarterly.”

Moving forward, Mariano also hopes to broaden the perception of the shop. “Play Grounds is a playful, energetic coffee shop,” she says. “Sometimes we get pegged as just being for families, but it’s for everyone.”

Play Grounds is located at 15715 Madison Avenue, Lakewood. For more information, click here.

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. Along with her work at FreshWater, she is the editor-of-chief of Edible Cleveland and a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes for Creative Groove, Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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