How Bay Area’s Bachan’s Japanese barbecue sauce stayed true to its roots and became a national pantry staple


In this recurring series, SFGATE food editor Steph Rodriguez sits down with Bay Area chefs and those with deep ties to the food industry at their favorite dives, cozy mom-and-pop spots and beloved taquerias. Over deliciously affordable bites, ‘Did You Eat?’ profiles the region’s most talented tastemakers.

A trip to Sonoma County to meet up for some large bowls of spicy ramen landed me in Sebastopol’s quaint downtown neighborhood. It’s dotted with old-timey street lamps with curvy accents, well-curated antique shops and busy ice cream parlors. The aroma of fresh-baked cookies from a nearby coffee shop beckoned a leisurely crowd to stop and feed their cravings. For a town once known for its apple and plum orchards — now replaced by vineyards — it’s a picturesque snapshot of quiet family living. 

Once I snap back to reality, I walk down Sebastopol Avenue until I arrive at Ramen Gaijin’s red brick building as it’s opening for lunch service. There to greet me, cracking a friendly smile, and holding a variety pack of Bachan’s Japanese barbecue sauce decorated with a red smiling octopus, is Justin Gill, founder and CEO of the family-run company. 

Bachan’s, which Gill says means “granny” in Japanese, comes from a multigenerational family recipe that was inspired by his own bachan, Judy Yokoyama. Once the company officially launched in 2019, the demand for its savory sauce grew from a few hundred bottles lovingly packaged by Gill’s wife, Chanra, and his three daughters from their Sebastopol home, to millions of bottles commercially packaged in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Santa Rosa. 

Today, Bachan’s has become a national pantry staple. Its 17-ounce squeeze bottles, priced at $12.99 online, are also sold in Target, Whole Foods, Kroger, Nugget Markets and even available in Costco-sized jugs at the wholesale store. 

“Everything has been growing so fast. Our team went from myself, my wife — early on my bachan would come help — my kids, my mom and now we have a team of 15 full-time team members,” Gill says. “We’re working a lot and just trying to keep it going, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

Ramen Gaijin is open for lunch, dinner and takeout at 6948 Sebastopol Ave., in downtown Sebastopol.

Ramen Gaijin is open for lunch, dinner and takeout at 6948 Sebastopol Ave., in downtown Sebastopol.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

The ohitashi at Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol is a delicious bowl of roasted seasonal vegetables on top of creamy, silken tofu purée.

The ohitashi at Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol is a delicious bowl of roasted seasonal vegetables on top of creamy, silken tofu purée.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

The shoyu ramen at Ramen Gaijin comes with toasted rye noodles, pork belly chashu, wakame, leekswoodear mushrooms, menma and a six-minute egg.

The shoyu ramen at Ramen Gaijin comes with toasted rye noodles, pork belly chashu, wakame, leeks
woodear mushrooms, menma and a six-minute egg.

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

Justin Gill, founder and CEO of Bachan's enjoys the shoyu ramen at Ramen Gaijin in downtown Sebastopol. 

Justin Gill, founder and CEO of Bachan’s enjoys the shoyu ramen at Ramen Gaijin in downtown Sebastopol. 

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

Scenes and sustenance from lunch at Ramen Gaijin, in downtown Sebastopol, with Bachan’s founder Justin Gill. (Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE)

As we’re seated in a private corner of Ramen Gaijin, I ask Gill why he chose this particular restaurant as the setting for our interview. For Gill, Ramen Gaijin is a place he enjoys taking his family for a warm meal, made from ingredients inspired by local farms. It’s a restaurant where he says the food is always fresh, always reliable on a weeknight and a place where the owners, Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Shuman, supported Bachan’s in its earliest stages. The restaurant owners are known to use the sauce to add a punch of flavor to marinated meats for yakitori or a bit of zing in its donburi dishes. 

“When I first heard they were opening a ramen shop in Sebastopol, I was just really excited because we didn’t have anything like that here,” Gill says. “It’s just so, so good. This is all of my kids’ favorite restaurant and I love ramen. When we visit different cities, we go to different ramen shops. The shoyu ramen, I’m probably going to go with that today.” 

He orders for the table, starting with appetizers such as ohitashi, with grilled broccoli and cauliflower, along with roasted carrots, fried quinoa and gomae, all resting on a silken, tahini-tofu puree. The charred-kissed vegetables sing with flavor and pack a delightful crunch against the creamy tofu. It’s a simple dish, but one that’s been on my mind since I left Sebastopol. We also noshed on karaage, crispy fried chicken thighs with black sesame seeds, served with sauteed mustard greens and a yummy miso ranch sauce. 

With our meal off to a solid start, Gill opens the pack of Bachan sauces he brought and busts out the newest flavors to join the ranks: yuzu and hot-and-spicy. Adding more flavors to the Bachan’s line, along with a gluten-free version, is a sign of the company’s growing success, but Gill admits it wasn’t an easy road by any means. 

Some of the Bachan's team inside the company warehouse, where they store hundreds of boxes of barbecue sauce.

Some of the Bachan’s team inside the company warehouse, where they store hundreds of boxes of barbecue sauce.

Courtesy of Bachan’s

In 2016, Gill brought his beloved family recipe to a variety of Northern California co-packers and formulators. They told him that he would need to pasteurize the sauce to make it a shelf-stable product, and water it down to decrease its cost.

Gill, who believed in the quality and flavor of Bachan’s, walked away feeling defeated. But he was willing to take an industry expert’s advice, so he tried to recreate the family recipe, incorporating methods that would help him realize his dream of bringing Bachan’s to the masses.

He watered it down. The results were disappointing. 

“It just totally changed everything about the sauce. The flavor, it was just a totally different thing and it tasted like everything else that was on the market,” he says. “The purpose of our business, to have this product, this sauce, that’s part of our family legacy, I didn’t want to bring it to market if it wasn’t going to be that.” 

Not willing to compromise on his values and the ingredients that made the sauce so popular with neighbors and friends, Gill discovered he could keep the integrity of the recipe if he cold-filled each bottle. It’s a process that doesn’t require a product to be heated to high temperatures. During pasteurization, Gill says some flavors can be lost or burned off before the product is even bottled, leading some companies to lean on artificial flavors that can withstand this method.

With this knowledge, he revisited the co-packer once again in hopes of a more positive outcome. 

“I was telling him how amazing these ingredients are and about this cold-filled process. He kind of stopped me in my tracks and just said, ‘Look, your ingredients don’t matter. All that matters is how much money you have to market this product. I’m just going to tell you the truth,’” Gill says. “I respectfully disagreed with that, and today, our tagline is: ‘Our ingredients matter.’ They really do and that’s what makes the product so special.” 

Bachan's Japanese barbecue sauce is available in grocery stores nationwide.

Bachan’s Japanese barbecue sauce is available in grocery stores nationwide.

Courtesy of Bachan’s

What makes Bachan’s stand out among the hundreds of syrupy, soy sauce-based products on grocery store shelves is its distinct savory flavor. It adds pop to vegetables and is a quick marinade for steak, chicken or fish. I became a fan early on in 2020, when I found myself cooking from home more during the pandemic, and trying desperately to make veggies disappear from my then-5-year-old’s dinner plate. 

The secret to Bachan’s is its base, which uses a traditionally brewed and fermented soy sauce, never made from powder and water. There’s also the mirin, a low-alcohol rice wine that Gill says is as “a quintessential ingredient used in Japanese cooking;” it’s also an expensive ingredient, and many companies tend to shy away from it in favor of cheaper substitutes.

For Gill, real everyday ingredients just taste better. That, paired with the love for the recipe he and his family have brewed for generations, is reflected in each bottle. 

“Our original [sauce] only has 10 ingredients. They’re all culinary-level ingredients that you can understand and recognize and they’re minimally processed,” he says. “I think that’s something consumers are becoming more aware of, not just all the certifications and buzzwords that you can have on your products, but how they’re made and how processed they are.”

Bachan's inspiration, Judy Yokoyama (left), and a young Justin Gill (right).

Bachan’s inspiration, Judy Yokoyama (left), and a young Justin Gill (right).

Courtesy of Bachan’s

‘It brings me right back to those times’

At 86 years old, Judy Yokoyama, the inspiration behind Bachan’s, remembers her grandson as a child always bursting with creative ideas during his visits. Back in those days, Yokoyama lived in a granny unit conveniently located down the driveway from his parents’ home, and says she recognized his entrepreneurial spirit right away. 

“Every week it seemed, he would come down, sit at the kitchen table and say, ‘Bachan, let’s think of some idea!’ He usually had an idea, but after we discussed it, it wasn’t the one,” she told SFGATE through email. “When he was older, he put his ideas into action. His jichan (grandpa) would tell me, ‘Justin is going to hit it one day!’ … His jichan would be so proud of Justin hitting it with Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce.” 

Every holiday season, Yokoyama and her family would blend substantial batches of the barbecue sauce in a large steel kettle and an arm-sized wooden mixing spoon. Each family member had an assigned duty in their home-based assembly line. They would brew, bottle and give away the sauce to customers of the family business, Gill’s Landscaping. Each year, customers would visit the office asking for a refill; some even offered to buy the recipe.

That’s when Gill knew his family had something special. 

“So some of us would be bottling, another one would be wiping the bottles, another one would be tying the little ribbons, one person would be mixing, one person would be dumping sugar,” Gill describes. “Just the smell of all these ingredients coming together: the ginger, the garlic, the green onion. When I smell the sauce today when I cook with it, it brings me right back to those times. That’s why it’s so special to me. It really does bring me right back.” 

Left to right: Bachan's bright-red octopus featured on the brand's bottles. Justin Gill, founder and CEO of Bachan's Japanese barbecue sauce.

Left to right: Bachan’s bright-red octopus featured on the brand’s bottles. Justin Gill, founder and CEO of Bachan’s Japanese barbecue sauce.

Courtesy of Bachan’s

Cooking and eating together as a family is one tradition Gill inherited from Yokoyama. He loved her fried bologna rice boats and says his teenage friends always anticipated her fried chicken drummies, doused in the family barbecue sauce during long road trips. 

“As a bachan (grandmother), some of my favorite things to cook for my family were fried rice baloney boats for the kids, mashed potato and hamburger balls, chicken drummets marinated in our sauce, sukiyaki, and noodle bowls,” she writes. “I tried to cook whatever my family loved and they knew I cooked with love for them — the most important ingredient — love!” 

Going against the grain and redefining how commercially packaged foods can be made and brought to market, without compromising on the integrity of his family’s legacy, are the principles that Gill stands firmly behind. It’s a quality that Matthew Williams, the chef-owner of Ramen Gaijin, says stood out to him when they first met before the brick-and-mortar opened. 

“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to work with Justin and support him and tell people about his story and his product because he has a similar philosophy to us, where it starts with ingredients and technique and doing things the right way — and he wasn’t going to compromise that,” Williams says. “For us, that’s the same way we approach our restaurant. We’re ultimately looking to offer something that’s very personal that supports our values.” 

Inside Ramen Gaijin, two large bowls of steaming ramen hit the table. Gill ordered the shoyu, while I went with the spicy tantanmen. Gracious as ever, he didn’t side-eye me when a few broth-soaked sapporo noodles splattered on my black blouse. Instead, he joked that he wished he wore gray instead of the crisp, white Bachan’s T-shirt that was just asking for a splash of dashi. 

Bachan's founder and CEO, Justin Gill, wearing a company T-shirt, expertly scoops toasted rye noodles from his bowl of shoyu ramen. 

Bachan’s founder and CEO, Justin Gill, wearing a company T-shirt, expertly scoops toasted rye noodles from his bowl of shoyu ramen. 

Steph Rodriguez/SFGATE

Between bites of tender wood-ear mushrooms and the six-minute eggs floating in a sea of rich miso broth, he says Bachan’s mission has always been to “bring families together,” especially during an era where people are busier than ever. For him, sharing a meal together is sacred.

Bachan’s is also an unassuming way to introduce people to Japanese culture, while giving customers a taste of the unique flavors Gill and his family have managed to bottle and sell nationwide. And seeing his family’s treasured recipe in pantries across the country is realizing his grandparents’ American dream.

It’s one that began with a boy and his bachan dreaming big around the dinner table. 

“My girls play year-round club soccer, so we’re busy, especially with building a business. So when we do get to share a meal together, it’s very meaningful,” Gill says. “To this day, with my family and my kids, we still eat a meal with our sauce at least a couple times a week. That’s what food does for our family and I love that about food, and specifically for us, our sauce does that for us. It’s something that can enhance a meal.”

Visit Bachan’s for more information on where to find its sauce. Ramen Gaijin, 6948 Sebastopol Ave, Sebastopol. Open Tuesday through Saturday, noon-2:30 p.m. for lunch, and from 5 p.m.-9 p.m. for dinner. Closed on Sunday and Monday.


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