Sebastopol entrepreneur turns his grandma's teriyaki sauce recipe into a family business
Justin Gill of Sebastopol has been enjoying his Japanese-American grandmother's teriyaki sauce all of his life, whether brushed over karaage chicken wings, salmon, vegetables or tofu.
In 2017, when he took a trip back to Japan with his Cambodian wife, Chanra, he couldn't wait to try the real deal. The only problem was that no one in Japan had ever heard of teriyaki sauce.
“Then I found a guy making yakitori (grilled meat), and he had what I knew was teriyaki sauce,” Gill said. “I asked him what it was, and he said ‘barbecue' sauce.”
So Gill, who launched his own teriyaki sauce back in 2013 under the name “Bachan's (Japanese-American slang for grandma)”, decided to call the product “Japanese Barbecue Sauce.”
He launched the website for the sweet and salty sauce in 2013, at first making it himself in a commercial kitchen. This spring, he quit his day job as a landscape designer and jumped full-time into the start-up business, with help from a co-packer plus his mother, wife and three daughters.
“I love to cook,” he said. “That's pretty much why I started this business.”
He launched the product from an old family recipe that has been passed down from kitchen to kitchen for generations.
“My bachan (pronounced BUH-chuhn) showed my mom and dad how to make the sauce, and she learned from her parents,” he said. “We would bottle it at Christmas to give as gifts ... the sauce is a local legend in Sebastopol, as we've been giving it out for 30 years. It's really a family heirloom.”
Like many folks of Japanese descent living in the west county, Gill's grandmother and grandfather were raised amid the apple and hops fields of Sebastopol where their parents, natives of the city of Hiroshima in southern Japan, had come to work.
During World War II, his grandparents and great-grandparents were relocated to the Amache internment camp in Granada, Colorado, leaving behind their homes, their jobs and their place of worship - the Enmanji Buddhist Temple of Sebastopol - behind.
“I was in the first grade ... we went to the railroad station and then we took the train,” said Gill's bachan, Judy Yokoyama. “It was scary.”
After the war, his relatives returned to Sebastopol and lived on an apple ranch owned by Joe and Elizabeth Perry, eventually buying their own home and creating a family compound. The Japanese-American family has been rooted in Sebastopol ever since, with four generations now having attended Analy High School.
Although Gill initially followed his grandfather and father into landscape gardening, he has always been attracted to entrepreneurship.
At the age of 19, he launched a small, import car parts business. In 2007, he started a lifestyle clothing brand with a mixed martial arts theme. Along the way, he learned a lot about business and marketing.
“I was always an entrepreneurial kid,” he said. “I liked the idea of starting something from nothing.”
The term “teriyaki” originally described a method of cooking - “teri” comes from “tare” and refers to the glossy sheen created by the mirin cooking wine in the sauce, while “yaki” refers to any cooking over direct heat - but today the word is used interchangeably for the sauce as well.
In Japan, teriyaki sauce was traditionally used to flavor fatty, grilled seafood - tuna, eel and yellowtail - but the West has adopted it as a favorite preparation for grilled salmon, beef and or chicken.
According to an article in Serious Eats, the Westernized version of teriyaki - with added garlic, ginger, toasted sesame oil and more sugar - probably came to the U.S. with Japanese immigrants who stopped off in Hawaii, where they sometimes added pineapple juice to tenderize the meat. Teriyaki is commonly used as a marinade, a baste and also a dipping sauce for potstickers.
At Gill's home, family dishes that showcase his umami-filled sauce make regular appearances at the dinner table.
“I grew up eating a lot of salmon, vegetables and tofu,” he said. “One of my aunts would bring fresh tofu back from the markets in San Jose.” Grilled Ribeye, marinated and brushed with a teriyaki glaze on the grill, has also been a staple in his house since he was a kid.
Rice with “okasu” - a mixture of bean sprouts, tofu, onion, snow peas and zucchini, seasoned with teriyaki - pops up about once a week at the family's dinner.
“It's easy, and a good way to get your vegetables,” he said. “I remember eating okasu at every meal when we were kids.”
As a salad, Gill likes to prepare Namasu, a simple, pickled cucumber dish that is a staple at many Japanese restaurants. To give it a Sebastopol twist, he often adds fresh strawberries from Farmer Lao's farmstand on Highway 12.