Justin Gill, the founder and CEO of Bachan’s, has always had a spirit of entrepreneurship. Before launching his successful brand of barbeque sauce, he dreamed up a multitude of business ideas. His greatest supporter was his grandmother.
“I talked about all my entrepreneurial ideas with her, and she would help make little prototypes with me, and help make business plans. She always supported that,” Gill said in a conversation with NextShark.
Things have come full circle for Gill, whose brand honors both his grandmother and his Japanese American heritage. “Bachan,” which means “grandmother” in Japanese, pays homage to the influence his heritage has had on his life.
Authenticity and Access
One of the biggest hurdles Gill faced at the outset was converting a family recipe into a commercially viable product.
“Not just the ingredients, and all those things, which are obviously really important to us, but how it was made: the cold-filling process and not using pasteurization.”
It took six years for Gill to finally achieve the business’ signature sauce, which launched in 2019. The final product is vegan, cold-filled and made in small batches with no preservatives. The dark, smooth brown sauce now comes in multiple flavors: the original, hot and spicy and yuzu. Each of the bottles features the signature octopus logo, which Gill mentions a Bachan’s fan recently got a tattoo of. If the tattoo anecdote wasn’t a clear enough indicator of success, Bachan’s is currently being sold in almost 3,000 grocery stores across the United States, including Whole Foods.
The goal with the Bachan’s business was always to navigate a balance between authenticity and access.
“We wanted to build something from the very start that we could make available to the masses, but at the same time, remain true to who we are as people, as a company, as a culture. That is a challenge. I love to be inclusive and create something that’s approachable.” When it comes to authenticity, he says, “I think that word can get a bad name sometimes, but for me it means being authentic to who you are.”
True to Japanese American roots
Gill, who identifies as hapa — a Hawaiian word used to describe someone of mixed Asian ancestry — grew up celebrating his Japanese American heritage.
“My whole Japanese American side was very proud to be Japanese American. My uncle fought in World War II, against Japan. He was in the 442. They were very proud to be Japanese, but they were also very proud to be American.”
To preserve their Japanese culture, his family gathered often to share in cooking and traditions like Children’s Day and visits to the Buddhist temple for special occasions. Many of his relatives lived together on a communal property, which meant that they shared meals together every single day.
“They had a big garden, they were fishermen, they traded and bartered. I have really great memories there, and that was a way that the culture was definitely passed onto me.”
Things were not always easy for his family, especially his Bachan, who was interned at Camp Amache as a child and later had measles and mumps as a young mother. Gill says he has never heard his grandmother complain.
“She’s always had this extremely strong attitude and character… Even when she speaks about camp and everything, haven’t really heard a ton of complaints. They kind of dealt with the situation and came back stronger, integrated themselves into the community.”
Today, Gill’s Bachan has stayed involved with the brand, writing the company blog, called “Bachan’s Cup of Tea.”
In a time when Asian elders have been targeted during a rise in anti-Asian hatred across the U.S., it has become even more important for Gill to honor his grandmother.
“When this all happened, and all the violence against AAPI elders and people in general, it brought back a lot of memories for my bachan, some of my aunties that are still here. It made them remember those times.”
For Gill, the past few years have added layers to what he is trying to accomplish.
“I think it’s important for all AAPI entrepreneurs and founders to take a stand and support the movement and support each other, and to represent ourselves well and strong.”
Featured Image via Justin Gill