How One Grandmother Inspired An Entire Japanese Sauce Company
Bachan’s “teriyaki-ish” sauce is a celebration of generational recipes.
Bachan has a lot of meanings for Justin Gill. It’s the affectionate name he calls his grandmother, which translates to granny in Japanese. It’s also the name of the brand Gill has built, based off this grandmother’s “teriyaki-ish” sweet and savory sauce he’s been eating his entire life.
The silky concoction has been around for holidays, barbecues, and weekly family meals. It was given as a token of friendship to neighbors and friends throughout Gill’s life. “I just recognized from when I was a kid, people would just light up [for the sauce] and they’d be waiting for it that time of year,” he explains. “For a couple months after the holidays every year, people would show up to our office with empty bottles and try to buy the sauce.” It’s a flavor that encapsulated his childhood, and has now become a staple for his own children.
Gill has always been entrepreneurial. He would relay his imaginative business ideas to his bachan, or share little inventions with her. First, it was an independent clothing brand—which unfortunately didn’t survive the 2008 recession. Then, it was landscaping and consulting, following in Gill’s father’s footsteps. But in the back of Gill’s mind, the sauce remained—as did the desire to own a small business.
“I thought about it sitting next to my bachan and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we should call this Bachan’s,’” he recalls. “I looked up the domain name and it was available—so I just bought the domain right there.” This was in 2013, and it felt like fate. Here was a product legions of friends and family have loved and sought out, an opportunity to continue to be an entrepreneur, and a way of continuing to connect with his family—both his bachan, but also with his wife and his own children. Bachan’s, from day one, was a family affair.
But crafting a homemade sauce is one thing. Sourcing ingredients, making sure the product is shelf stable, and scaling the recipe is a whole other feat. Thankfully, Gill had his entire family behind him.
“I wasn’t going to bring something to market that wasn’t a representation of my family.”
“The whole R&D part was really fun. Everyone in my family tasted it,” Gill says. “We’d have blind tastings set up all the time.” Because of how precious the formula is—something Gill has referred to as a family heirloom—it was important to get it right. “I wasn’t going to bring something to market that wasn’t a representation of my family.” In total, Gill and his bachan went through 48 iterations of the formula before settling on a cold-filled sauce made with 10 easily identifiable ingredients, including mirin, non-GMO soy sauce, organic garlic, and cane sugar. The sauce brand officially launched in 2019.
“The ingredients matter,” Gill says. “None of the co-packers would take me on. One of them specifically told me that your ingredients don’t matter—everything that you’re trying to do is not going to work.” Gill made it his mission to prove them wrong and used the naysayer’s doubts as inspiration for Bachan’s official tagline: “Our ingredients matter.”
In Gill’s home, the sauce is typically used to marinate chicken thighs or to finish grilled salmon—but his customers have been providing inspiration for future uses. “People have been putting it on ice cream—just all kinds of crazy stuff that we’d never use it on, but it’s super fun,” he laughs. “Every time we hear something new, we go out and try it. I would be a customer of our sauce and I’ve eaten it my whole life.”
Gill hopes that Bachan’s will function as a pantry staple for his customers, replicating the success of Sriracha or ketchup. Bachan’s is well on its way. Two years after its initial launch, Bachan’s small-batch sauces have graduated from a makeshift home distribution center to a warehouse in the Bay Area. And although Gill’s bachan, Judy Yokoyama, isn’t packing the boxes any longer, she’s still very much involved in the brand.
“My bachan writes a blog for our website. She’s 85 years old and still an amazing writer,” he says. “Being able to work with her is amazing every day.” (If you’re looking for gems like “The happy times can’t go on forever and neither can the difficult times! Life is like the ebb and flow of the ocean!” then her blog is required reading).
And Bachan’s does not intend to be a one-trick pony. The brand recently launched a spicy version of its beloved sauce, with future iterations Gill is slyly keeping quiet about.
“Early on, my mission was to bring our family’s sauce to market and honor my family,” Gill explains. “Our new mission is to bring other families together. When I landed on that, it was a big light bulb moment because that’s what the sauce has done for me, my family, forever. It’s brought us together around the table.”