You’ve probably seen Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce on the shelves at your local supermarket, packaged in a familiar looking chef’s squeeze bottle and labeled with a cheery hachimaki-wearing octopus. For the uninitiated, Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce (Original flavor) has a savory-sweet flavor, full of umami. With notes of ginger, garlic and green onion, the taste is fresh, balanced and surprisingly complex, given its 10 ingredients.
Bachan’s has been out on the market since June 2019, and has grown a huge following ever since. Upon learning more, it turns out that Bachan’s is much more than a tasty, addictive sauce.
Justin Gill, founder and CEO of Bachan’s, shares that the sauce’s recipe originated from his grandmother Judy Yokoyama, belovedly known in his family as “Bachan.” A second-generation Japanese American from Sebastopol, Calif. who, despite being uprooted and spending part of her life at the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado during World War II, holds an unwaveringly positive view on life.
This outlook has been a through line in Gill as he developed the sauce and grew the company through the years. “She’s amazing. She’s been through so much hardship in her life, and is always a shining light in our family. That’s something I noticed from all my family members that went to (the concentration) camp. They have such a positive outlook from that time. I really respect it, and I found it hard to understand when I was younger but I understand now.”
Yokoyama’s outlook and wisdom is reflected through a series of “Bachanisms,” sayings that have not only uplifted multiple generations of her family, but also helped make Bachan’s sauce what it is now.
Earlier in development, distributors tried to convince Gill to dilute and change the recipe to reduce cost and scale production. That change included pasteurizing the sauce. But, when he tried it, he discovered that it completely changed the whole sauce — the taste, smell, even the mouthfeel.
The Bachanism that carried through this time was, “Don’t worry about them, you just be the good one.” Gill started working on formulating the sauce himself, staying true to the recipe’s high-quality ingredients. And then over a two-year period, he figured out a cold fill process that would uphold the integrity of the taste.
“If I was going to do this, and represent our family legacy, I need to make sure it represented,” he explained, noting the sauce’s motto emblazoned on every bottle: “Our Ingredients Matter.”
The recipe, after all, had been taught to Gill’s parents, who in turn taught Gill. Together, they had made big batches to gift during the holidays; it was a true family effort. After noticing that people were excited about the sauce, wanting the recipe or a refill, Gill knew from a young age how much people loved the sauce, and how special it is.
As new flavors are introduced, Gill takes great care to ensure the quality of each new sauce is exceptional, and there is great pride in sourcing and using only high-quality ingredients. Bachan’s Yuzu Barbecue Sauce, for example, uses yuzu sourced from Japan, bringing a bright, citrusy flavor to the forefront. This is despite citrus flavors in sauces having a tendency to fade or flash off when cooked.
Getting Bachan’s sauce recipe formulated and brought to market was inspired by a month-long heritage trip he took with his family in 2013. In Japan, Gill connected with the Japanese cultural values behind craftsmanship, which he then applied to developing to Bachan’s sauce.
“I had so many questions about myself answered, about my family, everything,” he recalled. “One of the things I appreciated was how much pride people took in their craft. How they have a singular focus. That really inspired me to another level.”
Once he returned from this trip, he began working on the sauce all the way through June 28, 2019, when he started selling. But in less than a year, the pandemic hit. Gill’s house in Sebastopol became a small distribution center while family pitched in to ship sauces from home.
Despite the challenges, they persevered, garnering support through customers and the community.
“The support that we received from the Japanese American community has been amazing. The Japanese Cultural and Community Center (of Northern California) in San Francisco really supported us early on…. Part of doing this business was for me and one part was for my family and family legacy, to also teach my kids what you can do and achieve in the world if you work really hard and keep persevering.”
The roots of this sauce are deep in Gill’s family, as well as his community, and through his desire to share something special from his family with the rest of the world.
“We do this (being able to share with Japanese American culture with the rest of the world) with intention, and we do this in a really inclusive way,” he said. “That has been awesome. That’s something I saw my family, Baachan, Jiichan and aunties do. They shared their cultures with all their friends and family. To be able to do that and carry that forward has been really meaningful.”
Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce come in Original, Hot and Spicy, Yuzu, and Gluten-free (original) varieties, and are available for purchase online at www.bachans.com, as well as through major retailers such as Target, Whole Foods, Costco and Berkeley Bowl.
Find new recipes and inspiration for Bachan’s sauces through their Website and social media (Instagram, Facebook) #TryBachans. You can also follow Yokoyama and read more “bachanisms” through her blog, “Cup of Tea.”
Bachan’s will also be available as samples and for sale at the upcoming Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival Saturday, July 2 in San Francisco Japantown’s Peace Plaza. For more information, visit: www.soyandtofufest.org.