When Jelena Pasic opened Harlem Shake in 2013, the uptown restaurant owner taste tested almost everything — the buns for her hot dogs, the ice cream in her milkshakes, and as many as six different Pat LaFrieda meat blends — but she knew from the start where she was getting her burger buns. “Martin’s was a must,” she says. “It was never even a question.” The squishy, slightly sweet potato rolls have anchored Harlem Shake’s menu for the last decade, making up as much as half of everything Pasic purchases in a week. Amid growing calls to boycott the Pennsylvania hamburger bun maker, she’s debating how, and whether, to leave them behind.
“It’s such an established brand,” Pasic says. “That’s what makes this so hard.”
In May, Philadelphia news outlet 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 upwards of $100,000 to far-right state senator Doug Mastriano’s campaign for Pennsylvania governor — the largest amount from a single donor made to the candidate in the last two years. Subsequently, food industry figures Joe Rosenthal and J. Kenji López-Alt began calling for a boycott of the Pennsylvania bakery on Instagram.
In the past week, restaurants in San Francisco and Philadelphia have been cutting ties with the Philadelphia company in light of the controversy. In New York City, where competition for burger supremacy remains fierce, local restaurants and national chains are treading more lightly.
“It’s not an easy change for us to make overnight,” says Kevin Rezvani, owner of 7th Street Burger. His pair of Manhattan smash burger spots can go through as many as 5,000 Martin’s potato rolls in a single Saturday night. Finding a local supplier who can meet that demand on short notice is next to impossible, he says, especially at the lower prices offered by Martin’s. A box of more than 600 rolls costs around $34, according to the restaurateur.
“No normal bakery can just take that on overnight,” Rezvani says.
Most of the business owners contacted for this story had yet to settle on a permanent solution going forward. Part of the problem, they say, is that Martin’s potato rolls are largely considered the best in the business and there isn’t a clear alternative for burger shops to fall back on. Hawaiian rolls can be too sweet, Arnold Bread buns sometimes run dry, and brioche often expires after one to two days in storage. Still, some businesses are cutting ties with Martin’s even without a backup plan in place.
“As a company we do not take a stand for any political party, but we consider the extreme direction taken by Mastriano to be unacceptable,” Mark Mendaros, owner of Lower East Side smash burger counter Smashed, said in a statement to Eater over email on Wednesday.
Smashed already used buns from competitor Arnold Bread for its vegan smash burgers, according to a spokesperson for the business, and the restaurant is considering using Arnold on the rest of its menu until it settles on a longer-term solution. “We are taste testing alternatives and will be switching purveyors as soon as we exhaust our existing inventory,” Mendaros says.
The owners of multiple burger shops in New York City said they have their eye on Shake Shack, the Danny Meyer-founded burger chain that’s exclusively used Martin’s at its restaurants since 2004. Rosenthal and other social media users have called on the international burger chain to cut ties with the Pennsylvania bakery. A spokesperson for Shake Shack said the company was “in active conversations with Martin’s” over the accusations, but declined to comment on whether the brand would be switching bun suppliers. They specified that the chain does not make or endorse political donations of private individuals, and said that the actions of the Martin’s family “do not express the values of Shake Shack.”
For other restaurants, including Harlem Shake, it’s no longer possible to separate politics from business. Pasic has spent the last week on the phone with suppliers weighing the pros and cons of switching to Hawaiian rolls or hamburger buns from Mexican supplier Bimbo. “We immediately started looking at replacements,” 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 campaigned in April at an event hosted by Christian fundamentalists and QAnon conspiracy theorists, has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and has been subpoenaed over his participation in the January 6, 2021, rally that led to the insurrection at the Capitol building in D.C. He has also backed legislation in Pennsylvania that would make it illegal to have an abortion after six weeks.
Martin’s has not returned Eater’s request for comment, but the company sent a statement to Billy Penn after the controversy appeared in national media outlets earlier this week. The company claimed that while its family and stockholders hold political opinions, Martin’s does not support 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,” according to the statement.