By Joey Phoenix

When restaurateurs Tim Haigh and Larry Leibowitz begin a new project, they don’t go about it all willy-nilly. Kokeshi Salem is just about to introduce it’s brand of Ramen to the North Shore.

They have a plan.

A good plan.

When they opened local favorite Bambolina in 2015, they didn’t settle for standard street corner pie. No, theirs had to be Neapolitan-inspired, wood-fired, made from local ingredients, handcrafted with culinary personality — it had to wow its audience. Two years later, all the reviews are in, the people are wowed.

Now they’ve set their sights on Asian style street food deliciousness, and Salem has been buzzing about it for months.

This time around, they’ve gone a little off the rails, but in the best way imaginable. With their creative vision, and the help of some ridiculously talented local artists and craftsmen, they’ve transformed the space behind the former Salem laundromat into more than just a restaurant.

They’ve created an experience.

Planning Kokeshi

Tim and Larry’s original plan was on a much smaller scale than what Kokeshi would eventually become. The initial thought was to have a more traditional space with a single bar seating eight-ten guests. Yet, although the physical space was going to be conventional, the ambiance and the food were never going to be.

“Every noodle shop I’ve ever been to has been quite serious.” Larry explains. “It’s very sterile in their approach, the menu is very simple — usually one thing done really well — without a lot of variety.”

Tim and Larry wanted to do things differently. “We’re not looking at classic preparations or to follow a protocol to making the broth.” he continues. “We want to be able to do it our own way with our own spin, like how we approached the pizza.”

When negotiations for the original smaller space fell through, they had to look elsewhere.

“When we saw this new space available it was four times the size of what we envisioned,” he recalls, “and we realized we could do this in a grand way.”
The space adjacent to the former Salem Laundromat used to be an ambulance depot, and the industrial features of the building stood out to the team, including the high ceilings and asphalt floors with exposed cobblestones.

Interior of Kokeshi Ramen Shop Salem Ma

“It had a lot of street vibe to it.” Larry says. “We knew that we could make this industrial raw chic space really complement the food.

“We decided that if Bambolina was Brooklyn, Kokeshi was gonna be the Bronx.”

The two of them shot ideas back and forth, attempting to stitch together a design that would make the most sense. They even toyed around with the idea of bringing in a food truck, sans engine and gas line, as a means to both impart a a working kitchen and add an evocative focal point to the space.

Unfortunately, the logistics of this endeavor proved impossible, and they had to look to other ideas.

So instead, at the suggestion of master welder Scott Lanes, they brought in a shipping container, which Tim converted into a working hot kitchen with the help of a laser cutter.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that Tim is super dynamic.” Larry explains. “If he doesn’t know something he’ll watch a three minute YouTube video and then become an expert.”

Using the parking lot of Salem Laundry as his workshop, Tim cut out the roof, the back, a pass window for the front, and a door to enter and exit. Then Larry, Tim, and a group of six guys with his truck and dragged it into the building.

The first piece installed, it was time to look to transforming the walls.

The Walls — Danny Diamond

One of the most striking features of the space is the art in the vestibule, on one of the main walls, and on the shipping container. The design of the pieces were a collaboration between Tim, Larry, and mural/graffiti artist Danny Diamond of skribblefish.com, but the implementation was Danny’s alone. Danny is a wizard with paint, and his works can be seen from the garage doors of the North Shore to the industrial spaces of Santa Cruz, CA.

Danny grew up exploring a number of artistic mediums including theatre, graphic design, and creative writing. He graduated in 2006 from UMass Boston with a major in creative writing and a minor in philosophy, and it wasn’t until his late twenties when he realized that painting could be more than just a hobby. He had no idea it would ever become such a lucrative career.

Larry and Tim decided to bring Danny on board after Tim saw some work Danny had done for a mutual friend. Danny has a unique style, and its vibe immediately stood out to both Tim and Larry, so they brought him on board.

“There was such a cool edge to his work, and he works in his own language.” Larry recalls, “So we gave him a shot in the vestibule.”

Mural pinting by Danny Diamond at Kokeshi Salem

Danny initially proposed a large graffiti piece with distinctive colors that would fade up to midnight black. He did a sample sketch, Larry and Tim made a few tweaks, including the suggestion that Danny incorporate the Kokeshi logo onto an abstract bowl of noodles.

Larry and Tim enjoyed the work so much that they asked Danny to do a second piece, a mural — but they weren’t certain how they wanted to look just yet.

“I wanted something, whatever it was on the wall,” Larry says, “that when people would come in they would stop and take their picture in front of it.”

Danny brought some ideas to Tim and Larry and the three of them set about finding a concept.

“I always put the onus on the client to put me in the right direction,” Danny explains, “and when they told me about their idea of a samurai with tattoos as a showpiece for the dining room, I set about finding reference pieces to make that happen.”

“It’s been my experience that when you hire an artist, you gotta give them free reign to let them do what they do best.” Larry adds.

It’s such a big deal to see the stroke of someone’s hand in a piece. It was important to me for my work to have this feel, because art like this has a humanizing effect.”Danny Diamond

One of the things Larry discovered was that Danny has a knack for high contrast, elegant murals that look as if they’ve been drawn in charcoal onto a sketchpad. So the three of them came up with the idea of having a female Samurai wielding a large sword. It would be mostly black and white, except she would have a tattoo of a carp on her shoulder, and the tattoo would be in color.

During the process Danny realized that the tattoo idea wasn’t going to be able to work. The shoulder wasn’t quite big enough, and there wasn’t enough curvature.

“So much of how we’ve worked throughout this project is about having faith in the artist.” Larry explains, “I told him, ‘say no more, I trust you.’ And it came out awesome.”

In lieu of the carp tattoo, Danny added detail to the hilt of the sword, as well an an array of beautiful cherry blossoms around the piece. The effect is wonderful.

Interior Mural by Danny Diamond Kokeshi Salem

“Everything is so digital nowadays,” Danny says. “So it’s such a big deal to see the stroke of someone’s hand in a piece. It was important to me for my work to have this feel, because art like this has a humanizing effect.”

The Branding — Andrew Bablo

Another element which plays into the dynamic Kokeshi vision was the branding, which was brought from the heads of Tim and Larry into being by Beverly native and Montserrat Alum Andrew Bablo.

Andrew is a multi-talented tradesman with skills ranging from graphic design to metal work to large scale murals. His work is well-known in Boston and the North Shore, and it’s been featured recently in the Hair of the Dog show at the Cabot, the Letterform Show at Mingo Gallery, and on the walls and silo of Bent Water Brewing, to name a few. He was also the owner and long time editor of Steez Magazine.

“People are looking towards more artists to do more unique work.” Andrew explains.

Andrew’s work is some of the most original and dynamic around, and this has a lot to do with the fact that he hasn’t settled on any particular style or material.

“I try not to do the same thing twice.” Andrew claims. “I have a really hard time when people say I really loved when you did this here, can you do the same thing?”

This drive for newness led him to reach out to Tim and Larry after hearing about the Kokeshi project. He realized that he had done a lot of things in Boston and Beverly, and very little in Salem. Knowing what they had done with Bambolina, Andrew knew it would be a good fit.

After some initial hesitation, mainly due to budgeting reasons, Tim and Larry agreed to bring him on board. It was a match made in culinary branding paradise.

“I would jot things down on a bar napkin and he would polish it.” Larry recalls. “I would ask him, what do you think of this? And he would come back with an idea and we would talk about it.”

“Larry had a pretty good idea about what he wanted to do,” Andrew says. “it was a lot of back and forth, a lot of process.

“It was nice,” he continues, “because I prefer that more than someone who just says yes to the very first thing. It’s not mine at the end of the day, because I want it to evolve to become the best product it can be.”

One of the biggest aspects of the branding — and Andrew did everything from the menus to social media collateral and much more — was the actual logo itself.

“Things kept snowballing.” Andrew recalls. “The beginning process was really long, and when we thought we had it locked down and done, he came back and said it’s not done.” He laughs.

The logo is based off of a Japanese wooden doll known as a Kokeshi. Like the name Bambolina means baby doll in Italian, Tim and Larry landed on the name Kokeshi as the Japanese equivalent.

Yet, even though the doll is traditionally female, Larry didn’t intend to have the doll be female.

“I didn’t want it to be too classic,” Larry says. “So I had this idea of doing a fu manchu with a man bun.”

However, this idea didn’t make it very far. So Andrew and Larry went back to the drawing board, before ultimately landing on the final version some time later.

“The colors changed, the logo changed, and so the doll that we have now is really soft and playful.” Larry describes. “The whole idea behind the logo was that I wanted people to see it and immediately smile. And I wanted them to know that what they’re about to get isn’t classic, isn’t authentic, isn’t serious.”

“I think we came up with something totally unique that’s also really a lot of fun.” Andrew says.

Branding, as a whole, is something Andrew would like to see more businesses consider more seriously.

“Brick and mortar is so hard, so expensive. If you’re going to make this investment in opening up a restaurant or retail location, you’ve gotta be different. You’ve got to be unique enough to pull people in. If you’re not gonna go for it, then why do it?”Andy Bablo

“Brick and mortar is so hard, so expensive. If you’re going to make this investment in opening up a restaurant or retail location, you’ve gotta be different. You’ve got to be unique enough to pull people in. If you’re not gonna go for it, then why do it?”

Fortunately, Larry and Tim agree.

“I see a ton of value in what he does. I really respect his craft a lot.” Larry explains. “He brought our ideas to life.”

In addition to his work with Kokeshi, Andrew is in the middle of a number of other expansive projects — among which is a mural project set to go up beneath the Salem/Beverly Bridge — but perhaps the most significant thing he’s doing is his role as creative partner for Hubweek.

Founded by the Boston Globe, Harvard, and MIT a couple of years ago as a platform to do keynote speaking events on science and tech, they’re looking to expand this year’s Hubweek (October 8–15) to be the intersection of art, science, and technology.

“It’s really going to be a spectacle.” He says.

The Structures — Scott Lanes

Salem State Alum and well known photographer Scott Lanes has been a North Shore resident for almost his entire life. Beginning his career as a set designer and builder for theatre productions, Scott works with endless amounts of odd materials from metal to fiberglass to glass and just about everything between.

“I primarily do metal,” Scott says, “that’s my main medium, but I work in fiberglass, I’ve done casting. I did a project for Roger Williams Zoo and they wanted a tree house, and they asked me to fabricate a whole set of insects cast in clear resin to be up in the walls.”

“We weren’t originally going to use Scott, but he kept coming up with all of these awesome ideas.” Larry recalls.

“I was over at Bambolina one night about a year ago,” Scott says, “and Tim was telling me about this restaurant he wanted to open — something with a real industrial feel to it.”

Tim then told Scott about Larry and his idea for the food truck as a kitchen, and asked Scott if he had any suggestions. They worked the problem for a while before realizing quickly how unrealistic it was. Then they decided on swapping the truck idea for the shipping container.

“I thought that it would look really cool,” Scott says, “like somebody just opened a restaurant Mad Max style at a dock.”

About halfway through the shipping container install, Tim asked Scott if he’d be willing to fabricate some shelving for the kitchen. Then another project came up. Then another.

“I’m halfway through the shelving and Larry’s like we just got a quote for this stairway going up to the second floor, you got any ideas for doing a stairway?” He laughs.

“And I said, yeah, I do. I’ve had that design in my head for a while and I just had no place to put it.” He recalls. “When I showed them the idea, they loved it.”

In addition to his work on the shipping container, the shelves, and the staircase, Scott also fabricated the tables and the table bases, as well as a number of other small metal work throughout the entire restaurant.

“They kept me busy from November 1st until about a week ago.”

“The design comes in day by day,” Larry says. “there are things happening today that I didn’t know about last week.

“Scott and Tim have just done an unbelievable amount of work just stitching the whole thing together.” Larry adds.

The Sign — Concept Signs

Located off Bridge street in Salem, Concept Signs has been crafting signage for businesses around the North Shore for almost two decades. Run by Ken McTague with the help of his production assistant, local artist Dan Gilbert, Concept Signs is the team behind — as you would expect — the Kokeshi sign.

The shop where the sign was made is a marvel in it’s own right. The back alleyway is filled with old vintage signage from the last 60 years, a stripped ’54 ranch wagon is being refurbished in the workshop, double hinged refrigerators from the 40s and 50s are in the workshop and office, and Ken’s art fills the walls of the office.

“Before I came back to Salem,” Dan begins, “I was working in a more corporate sign shop. It was really boring. For example, I was doing awnings for Dunkin Donuts.

“Working here it’s much better,” he continues. “Theres only like one Gulu Gulu. There’s only one Flying Saucer. All the signs have character.”

Concept Signs’ specialty is New England style gold leaf signage, which can be seen from the Devereaux House in Marblehead to Anmol Restaurant in Beverly to Salem Wine Imports on Church Street. So the Kokeshi sign was a bit of a deviation.

“Letters were cut out of this PVC and we made studs for them and spacers,” Dan explains, “So when you look at the Kokeshi sign the letters are lifted above the sign to cast a shadow.”

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Concept Signs also makes it a point to use automotive finishes on their signs, and the blue paint in the Kokeshi sign is automotive paint as well. The reason for this is durability.

“We did the Devereaux house sign about four or five years ago — the one with the pineapple,” he clarifies, “and If you go by it now it still looks brand new.”

The Future

Kokeshi is having their soft opening this coming week, and it’s certain from day one the lines will be out the door. The team has been working since November to bring about something that will be truly unforgettable.

“Our idea is to whisk you away and make everything tie into it,” Larry says, “but also use a lot of tongue in cheek sense of humor.

“We’ve always said that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we never want to. We want to have fun and we want the staff to be fun and we want the experience to be fun.”

Also, rumor has it, they’ll be projecting Kung Fu films on the wall. So stay tuned.
Stay tuned for information on menus and hours on the Kokeshi website.

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