In 1984 Kyoto Yakitori founder Rick Newton first visited Japan as an exchange student from the University of Alabama. During that six-month stay he lived and studied in Hirakata, a town thirty minutes away from Kyoto, Japan’s historic capital and cultural heart since the late 8th century. As a 21-year-old student on a tight budget but eager to savor as much of his Japan Experience as he could, Rick often boarded that train for Kyoto, knowing he could explore its narrow streets, wonder at its myriad temples and shrines, and enjoy any number of inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
Along with ramen, okonomiyaki, soba, udon and other small, low-cost, atmospheric mom-and-pop places to eat, Rick discovered yakitori. Yakitori means “grilled chicken,” but more broadly refers to the entire slate of meats and vegetables, in various combinations, grilled on small wooden skewers, and usually served one or two skewers per plate. Yakitori is street food. Festival food. Friends together-after-work food. Of all the delicious real Japan foods Rick discovered during the summer and autumn of 1984, yakitori became his favorite. He had never experienced anything like it before.
In the years to come Rick would work for a Japanese company (JVC) in the United States, get a law degree, and return to Japan to teach English in a rural Hyogo Prefecture middle school. He would also practice law for 25 years in Alabama, primarily employment law, and, during the 2000s, return often to Japan, sometimes as an antiquities dealer with his then-wife, sometimes as an attorney paying courtesy calls to Japanese executives of U.S.-based companies he represented, and sometimes as a guide for university groups visiting Japan. But no matter his reason for returning to Japan, he always found, or made, time to duck into at least a couple different yakitori joints.
As an employment law attorney, Rick represented more than a few Alabama restaurants. He also brought cases against restaurants on behalf of aggrieved employees. He learned many about many management and operational mistakes restaurants often make. As a former short order cook and server (between college and law school), Rick also got first-hand knowledge of these issues.