Growing up, Justin Gill and his family would spend the holidays making a big batch of Japanese barbeque sauce that they would give out as holiday gifts. Years later, he would take the family recipe and with a lot of ingenuity turn into Bachan’s. I sat down with Gill, founder and CEO of Bachan’s, to talk about how his grandmother inspired the business and the challenges he faced in creating a shelf stable version of the family recipe.
Dave Knox: Where does the name Bachan’s come from?
Justin Gill: Bachan is a Japanese American term of endearment for grandmother and our sauce is named after my Bachan. She’s the inspiration behind everything we do. She’s who taught my parents how to make our sauce when I was a kid and they all together taught me.
Ever since I can remember our sauce has been a part of our meals from regular family dinners to every holiday to every party, we always had a dish that was made with our sauce. And since I was a young kid, my entire family – my dad, my mom, my Bachan, my grandfather, my brothers and sisters – we would get together every year during the holidays and make a big batch of our sauce. And we would bottle it up and hand it out door-to-door to clients of our family landscape business and also friends and family. We do that every year during the holidays and people would lose their minds over the sauce. Every year they would show up months after the holidays with an empty bottle asking for a refill. They would ask for their recipe, of course, and they would offer to buy it. I just saw from a young age that people really love this sauce and we were making something special.
Knox: Many people have a family recipe that they think could be a business but very few people make the entrepreneurial leap. What gave you the confidence this could be a real business and how did you start?
Gill: I was always a entrepreneurial kid. I would talk to my Bachan about all my business ideas as a kid and we would make little prototypes of things together. I got the confidence to do it from my parents and my family. They always believed in me, which in turn gave me a strong sense of self-belief. And that in turn gave me the confidence to do it. And of course people loved the product we gave them as gifts and I knew it was a really good sauce.
I had the idea to launch it in 2013. My entire family had rented a beach house. My Bachan was there, and I had fairly recently lost a business that I started. It was a clothing line and we lost it during the recession. And after that, I went back to doing some landscape design and working for our family landscape business again, but it wasn’t something that I was really passionate about. I was always trying to think of something else to start, something else to build. And I was sitting there on the couch with my Bachan and we had just made a big meal using our sauce and just talking to her about what I was doing. And I just had idea that, “Man, we should try to bring this sauce to market.” When I start a business, I like to think about the name and the brand, and how it will look, and feel and all those things. And I started to think of names for the business. I looked over my Bachan and I said, “Oh, we should call it Bachan’s.” But there’s no way that name is available. I just did a little quick search on godaddy. com, typed in bachans.com and it was available so I bought it right there. And to me that was a sign that I should go and do this. I started working on it that weekend and started researching the marketplace, ingredients, packaging, other brands in the space, all those things and just jumped in right from there.
Knox: In those early days, how did you figure out the way to take this homemade recipe and turn it into a shelf stable product that go be sold in retail?
Gill: There was a lot of learning, a lot of failure, a lot of testing, and a lot of being told no. After that weekend with the family, I went back and started researching co-packers and formulators here the Northern California area. I quickly saw a pattern in that they were telling me that I would have to pasteurize the product and then I would have to add water to it to bring the cost down. I tried both and right away it completely changed everything about the sauce from the flavor profile to the smell to the mouth feel.
I had to decide if I wanted to bring something to market that was pretty much like every other product out there or see if there’s a different way. I have a little background in science and studied science in school. So I was able to just tinker and do a ton of research and figure out how to cold fill our sauce without pasteurization and make it shelf-stable without adding any water to it. That took me quite a long time, nearly 50 different iterations. But when I got it there, I knew I had something special. It tasted even better than our traditional family recipe because I elevated the quality of the ingredients. And I knew that there wasn’t another product like it on the marketplace that was cold filled and shelf-stable.
It took me about six years of doing it on the side to get to that point. I didn’t have a lot of capital so I took time to procure the ingredients and do all the Q&A and certifications. I decided to go back to the co-packers and many of them still didn’t want to take it on because it was cold filled and something that they had not done before. I ended up finding a co-packer that would take on the business and could produce at the level of quality that would meet our standards. My wife and I flew down to Southern California on June 28th, 2019, which was actually our 15-year wedding anniversary for our first production. We spent our wedding anniversary on the production floor, and it was one of the best anniversaries we’ve ever had. And we went out to a nice dinner that night and stayed in a nice place and celebrated but came back and got to work after that.
Knox: After two and half years, what have been the biggest milestones since that first production run?
Gill: That first production run was obviously a huge milestone for us. Then we sold our very first bottle during a demo we were doing at Pacific Market here in Sebastopol. It was my wife and I doing the demo and the first lady who tried it bought a bottle. And at that demo, we sold a lot of bottles after that. And it was at that point where I became even more confident that we had something here and people really do love the sauce. Finally, the biggest milestone happened recently when we gave all of our early employees at Bachan’s – all the way down to the warehouse and all the way up – equity in our business. And that felt really good to do that. To provide jobs that are meaningful and rewarding for people feels amazing.
Knox: What is the underlying mission of Bachan’s?
Gill: Our mission is to bring family together and it means a lot to us. It is a mission I experienced in my own family. In this day and age, coming together with your family around the dinner table is a really sacred thing. And if we can help cultivate that with a sauce that makes people want to cook, that makes it easy for people to make amazing meals that our family gets excited about, then that helps us accomplish our mission and is something we’re really proud of being able to do. We’re continuing to expand on our mission and finding new ways to actualize it. Modern families, we have busy lives, our kids are busy, we’re busy. So coming together as family is more important than ever.
Knox: You recently launched two new flavors. How did you think about your innovation strategy of building upon the original family recipe with these new launches?
Gill: We recently launched a Hot & Spicy and a Yuzu. The base of both of those formulations is our original Japanese Barbecue Sauce, but with each having its own twist. Both of the products took a long time to develop. With Yuzu, I actually pitched the flavor to Whole Foods before we had the formulation done, which was a mistake that I won’t make again. The reason was the flavor of the yuzu juice was flashing off when we were cooking with it. It had this amazing flavor when it was in the bottle, but then it wasn’t stable when heat was applied to it. I talked to some chef friends and they were seeing the same thing. To overcome it, we had a custom organic yuzu extract made that we could use in addition to the yuzu juice. And that got us to exactly where we needed to be with the flavor, keep keeping it consistent through cooking and everything.
When we look at product development, we want to have a transparent and honest approach to everything we’re doing. And we want everything to be of the highest quality. And if it doesn’t meet those standards, then we’re not going to put out a product. That is what happened with a black garlic flavor that we had planning on launching. We had really high hopes for it as we started sourcing black garlic. But when we tried the formulation, you just could not taste the black garlic. We started adding more and more but still couldn’t get the flavor. When I started to research why, I found out that many products that call out black garlic are actually just adding more regular garlic to it. And that’s what the consumer was really tasting. Since we want to be transparent and honest in our approach to product development, that was something we didn’t want to do with our black garlic. We ended up just killing that product because the flavor of our sauce was just too bold for the black garlic flavor to shine through.
We are never going to be a brand that has a million SKU’s. We really want to put out the best products and not the most. When you do that, what happens is you end up having less SKU’s and which we’re completely fine with.
Knox: So it’s been a wild ride for you since sitting on that couch with your Bachan and telling her about the idea that you had. For entrepreneurs that want to follow in your footsteps, what’s the best advice you can give to them?
Gill: The best advice that I can give to a up and coming entrepreneur is to build something that you are truly passionate about, and that you have the inner desire and conviction to build into something that is truly exceptional. You will need that conviction to see it all the way through because you are going to face some serious challenges along the way and you will feel like you want to give up at times. Don’t just build something because there is a trend going on for it. Trends are short-lived and a exceptional brand and product(s), should be timeless. Also, focus on serving your customer and put resources toward creating the best customer experience you can. When you have a customer that trusts your brand, don’t ever let that slip away by doing things to break that trust.