When Jelena Pasic opened Harlem Shake in 2013, the uptown restaurateur tasted just about everything—the buns for her hot dogs, the ice in her milkshakes, and up to six different Pat LaFrieda concoctions—but she knew where right away She got her burger buns. “Martin’s was a must,” she says. “It was never a question.” The mushy, slightly sweet potato buns have anchored the Harlem Shake menu for the past decade, accounting for up to half of everything Pasic shops in a week. Midst growing calls for a boycott the hamburger bun maker from Pennsylvania, she ponders how and if she should leave her behind.
“It’s such an established brand,” says Pasic. “That’s what makes it so difficult.”
In May, the Philadelphia News Agency Billy Penn reported that Jim Martin, one of the family owners behind Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, along with his wife and daughter, had donated more than $100,000 to far-right Senator Doug Mastriano’s campaign for governor of Pennsylvania — the largest sum by a single donor the candidate in the last two years. Then came food industry personalities Joe Rosenthal and J. Kenji López-Alt started making phone calls For a boycott of Bakery Pennsylvania on Instagram.
Last week restaurants in San Francisco and Philadelphia have severed ties with the Philadelphia company amid the controversy. In New York City, where competition for burger supremacy remains fierce, local restaurants and national chains are making an easier entrance.
“It’s not easy for us to make a change overnight,” says Kevin Rezvani, owner of 7th Street Burger. His two Manhattan Smash Burger spots can handle up to 5,000 Martin’s Potato Rolls in a single Saturday night. Finding a local supplier who can meet that need in the short term is next to impossible, he says, especially with Martin’s lower prices. According to the restaurateur, a box with more than 600 rolls costs around 34 US dollars.
“No normal bakery can do that overnight,” says Rezvani.
Most of the business owners contacted for this story have yet to agree on a permanent solution for the future. Part of the problem, they say, is that Martin’s potato buns are widely considered the best in the business and there’s no clear alternative for burger shops to fall back on. Hawaiian buns can be too sweet, Arnold Bread buns sometimes get dry, and brioche often spoils after a day or two of storage. Still, some companies are breaking ties with Martin’s even without a backup plan in place.
“As a company, we don’t take a position with any political party, but we find the extreme direction Mastriano has taken unacceptable,” Mark Mendaros, owner of Lower East Side burger joint Smashed, said in an email statement Eater on Wednesday.
Competitor Arnold Bread smashed used buns for its vegan smash burgers, a company spokesman said, and the restaurant is considering using Arnold for the rest of its menu until it agrees on a longer-term fix. “We’re exploring alternatives and will switch suppliers once we’ve exhausted our existing inventory,” says Mendaros.
The owners of several New York City burger shops said they had their eye on Shake Shack, the burger chain founded by Danny Meyer, which has exclusively used Martin’s in its restaurants since 2004. Rosenthal and other social media users have urged the international burger chain to cut ties with the Pennsylvania bakery. A spokesman for Shake Shack said the company was “in active discussions with Martin’s” about the allegations, but declined to comment on whether the brand would switch bun suppliers. They stated that the chain does not make or endorse political donations from private individuals and said the Martin family’s actions “do not express Shake Shack’s values.”
For other restaurants, including Harlem Shake, it’s no longer possible to separate politics and business. Pasic has spent the last week on the phone with suppliers, weighing the pros and cons of switching to Hawaiian buns or hamburger buns from Mexican supplier Bimbo. “We immediately started looking for a replacement,” she says. “It’s impossible for a company not to take a stand.”
Mastriano, a Republican politician, is known as a vocal Trump supporter and far-right advocate. He campaign in April at an event hosted by Christian fundamentalists and QAnon conspiracy theorists, has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election and was subpoenaed for his participation in the January 6, 2021 rally that led to the DC Capitol riot supports Legislation in Pennsylvania that would make a six-week abortion illegal.
Martin’s has not responded to Eater’s request for comment, but the company did send a statement to Billy Penn after the controversy surfaced in national media earlier this week. The company claimed that while his family and shareholders hold political opinions, Martins does not endorse any particular candidate or party.
“We will continue to focus on the values that have made our company successful – baking quality products, providing excellent service to our customers and supporting the communities around us,” the statement said.