Few burger chains have enjoyed as meteoric a rise as Shake Shack. From a single NYC location to a $100 million IPO just over a decade later, its cult-like following can be attributed to a number of factors — its custom Pat LaFrieda beef blend, those nostalgia-inducing crinkle fries, the “hospitality first” mantra imparted by founder Danny Meyer — but there’s another culinary force at play that shouldn’t be overlooked: those illustrious, pillowy-soft potato buns that cradle its burger patties.
A staple for East Coasters for more than 50 years, Martin’s potato rolls were born in Pennsylvania Dutch country in the 1950s. Made with high-protein wheat flour, potato starch, nonfat milk, sugar, and a blend of vegetable oil and butter, plus a little turmeric for color, the rolls’ slight sweetness, resilient squishiness, and telltale yellow crumb sets them apart from the generic fluffy white buns that dominate grocery store shelves.
Today, Martin’s potato rolls are exported to Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, England, Italy, the Bahamas, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Its family-owned and operated production facility in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania still bakes every single one with a recipe that’s changed little over the years — though as Lucky Peach wrote in 2014, the production facility has grown from a tiny garage in the ‘50s to what today is “a state-of-the-art modern bakery, where buns and rolls [are] cranked out by towering machines.”
But now that “eat local” is an inescapable mantra and calling out ingredients’ origins on menus is almost as common as listing prices, why are restaurants opting to have bread shipped in from as far as 10,000 miles away? The answer is a combination of a few factors: there’s the Shake Shack effect, surely, but the global reach of Martin’s potato rolls has also been fueled by nostalgia and the power of internet word-of-mouth.
The Shake Shack Effect
Shake Shack has used Martin’s potato rolls from day one, when its very first location opened in NYC’s Madison Square Park in 2004. “We wanted to evoke the classic, simple burger of most people's childhoods,” says Shake Shack culinary director Mark Rosati. “Out of all the buns that were tested in the early days, what we found was great about Martin's was that it cradled the meat perfectly — it absorbed the juices, but it didn't become soggy.”
Shake Shack toasts them to bring a little contrast to the pillowy soft texture, and resists slicing all the way through the bun — instead leaving a small “hinge” of bread to help better catch juices from the patty. “Texturally it has a great springiness and suppleness to it,” Rosati says. “And with other buns, the longer they sit, they can get very, very dry. The Martin's [bun] stays nice and moist.” That’s thanks to the potato starch, which absorbs more water than wheat starch and helps retain it, keeping the buns fresh longer.
Shake Shack embarked on a major global expansion tear in 2011, opening stores in locations including Dubai and Riyadh and, later, London and Tokyo, and each and every one of them serves burgers the same way as the OG location — on a squishy Martin’s roll.
That endeavor didn’t come without some challenges: Europe has strict non-GMO laws, meaning some changes had to be made to the buns before they could be served in Shake Shack’s UK and Turkey stores. The company asked Martin’s if it could create a non-GMO bun, and after some ingredient swaps such as replacing soybean oil with sunflower oil, Martin’s successfully devised a GMO-free bun to satisfy European regulations. (In 2015, Martin’s rolled out those changes to all its products worldwide.)
Shake Shack declined to provide figures on how many Martin’s buns it uses each year, but with now more than 100 locations, it’s safe to say the chain serves well into the tens of millions of them annually. “When [Shake Shack] first started using Martin’s, we didn't know how much they were going to explode,” says Julie Martin, granddaughter of Martin’s founders Lloyd and Lois Martin who now serves as the company’s social media manager. “But as they grow, they take our rolls and give us visibility in other countries.”
Shake Shack’s popularity has also inspired other restaurants to adopt Martin’s potato rolls for their own menus. For Houston restaurateur, pitmaster, and classically-trained chef Ronnie Killen, it was a Shake Shack visit on a trip to New York that made him a Martin’s convert. “There’s just something about their bun with a burger — the meat, the salt, the savoriness — it’s just magic,” he says.
When Killen Burgers opened last summer in Pearland, Texas, Martin’s potato buns made an appearance — but only on the kids’ menu. “Their normal burger bun is a four-inch bun, and being in Texas, that’s kind of small,” Killen laughs. “Our patty is ten ounces, which is huge — it’s way too much for that bun.” Killen says Martin’s approached him about creating a custom bun to better suit his Texas-sized burgers, and after a couple prototype versions, they came up with the perfect five-inch potato roll.
The Nostalgia Factor
Saying Martin’s products are beloved in its hometown is an understatement: Its products are served in countless restaurants across the Northeast, and have been for decades. The street its manufacturing facility resides on is named Potato Roll Way in its honor, and there’s a museum located on the same property that chronicles the company’s history.
While the product lineup includes other items such as sliced potato bread and seeded buns known as “Big Marty’s,” they’re undoubtedly best known for the potato rolls, which are, with a few exceptions, made in two sizes: a small two-inch “party” size that’s well-suited for sliders — such as the ones served at a Hackensack, NJ diner called White Manna that’s been around since the ‘40s — and a four-inch sandwich roll typically used as a burger bun.
Thousands of miles across the Atlantic in central London, Pennsylvania-baked Martin’s potato rolls play a supporting role at a three-year-old American-style burger joint called Stax Diner. Owner Bea Vo, who grew up in the Washington, DC area, has fond memories of the product: “Martin’s is what everyone used for barbecues [when I was growing up], and so it's just what I love,” she says. “Who doesn't remember going to Safeway or Giant and grabbing them along with hamburgers and mustard and potato salad?”
Bringing in bread from America has its challenges, though: Besides being more expensive than buying buns locally, Vo has to purchase an entire shipping container’s worth of product — about a five-month supply — at once in order to have them imported to England, which is a much bigger hurdle for an independent restaurant than it is for a big chain like Shake Shack. But for Vo, the cost and hassle is worth it: “American bread tends to be softer than European breads,” she says. “[Martin’s] is soft without being overly sweet like a brioche bun, and it's not eggy at all.”
Closer to home, Martin’s potato rolls have slowly but surely spread beyond the Eastern Seaboard, recently hitting the West Coast. Shake Shack opened its first Los Angeles outpost in Spring 2016, but the first West Coast restaurant to serve them was a restaurant that opened the year prior called Hollywood Burger. Director of operations Kevin Shea says several Hollywood Burger employees who grew up on the East Coast were familiar with Martin’s products, and thought the potato buns would be a perfect fit. “When we were coming up with the concept for Hollywood Burger, we wanted a bun that would complement the burger perfectly. Some of these brioche buns [that are popular now] are just too much bun,” he says. “Martin’s gives it the perfect meat to bun ratio.”
Those who didn’t grow up on Martin’s potato rolls may have learned of the product via a decidedly more modern medium: the internet. “We aren't a brand who spends a lot of money on advertising,” Martin says. “We've always relied on word of mouth, and social media and the internet has made that reach much broader so we get requests from people all over the world every week. I'll get a message from somebody in Sweden saying, ‘How can we get your rolls here?’”
The website Serious Eats has been singing Martin’s praises since at least 2009, when it praised the potato roll’s “unmistakable sweetness and pale yellow hue” in its recipe for copycat Shake Shack burgers. Since then, the site has recommended the product numerous times in its recipes and taste-tests, setting slightly sweet Martin’s rolls as “the benchmark” for a great burger bun.
“Definitely the internet has a lot to do with it,” says Serious Eats’ culinary director and The Food Lab author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt about Martin’s rise in popularity. “Easy access to information and memes means that when something becomes hot it becomes hot all over the world, not just locally.” The product has been the topic of much debate on the site’s popular discussion forum, with users across the world complaining about the lack of Martin’s in their areas and clamoring for suitable substitutes. In 2012, Serious Eats recommended Martin’s potato rolls in its holiday gift guide for burger lovers (while the Martin’s site no longer offers e-commerce, the products can now be had via Amazon).
Martin’s has a very active Twitter account that frequently retweets users professing their love for the product, reminiscing about how the rolls remind them of their grandmother’s kitchens and comparing its bread to “a slice from a cloud.” Julie Martin also gives credit to the rise of Instagram food porn: “We have a signature look to our buns and so people recognize it and go, ‘Oh, is that a Martin's potato roll?’” (The bizarre Instagram sensation @breadfaceblog even uses Martin’s in one video, with the account’s creator smashing her face into a potato roll to demonstrate the product’s springiness.)
In addition to helping spread the Martin’s gospel, social media has also spurred the company to make some changes: In 2014, Martin’s nixed azodicarbonamide (the so-called “yoga mat chemical” that the fear-mongering food blogger known as FoodBabe convinced Subway to remove from its bread) from its products after fans bombarded the company’s Facebook page with messages.
The Future of Martin’s
Of course, it’s not all word-of-mouth: While the company does little in the way of traditional advertising, Martin’s has pursued some strategic brand placement by sponsoring big-time culinary events such as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, as well as WFF events in Vegas and NYC. By having its buns used in the festival’s high-profile “Burger Bash” contests, the bakery attaches itself to big-name chefs like Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto, which provides greater visibility and prestige for the brand.
Looking forward, Martin’s global reach is perhaps limited only by demand: Restaurants beyond the scope of Martin’s distribution area, whether they’re in England, Texas, or California, receive the product frozen, with seemingly little effect on the quality of the bread. “We found that because our rolls and bread are high in protein, they freeze really well,” says Martin. But importing a shipping container’s worth of frozen bread isn’t always feasible, leading Martin’s to partner with major food distributors such as Sysco to provide its products to restaurants outside its U.S. market area.
And while Martin’s is considered by many to be the platonic ideal of a burger bun, it doesn’t stop there: In addition to using potato buns for its Chicken Shack, Shake Shack also began using Martin’s hot dog buns a few years ago, foregoing the authenticity of a Chicago-style poppy seed bun in favor of that familiar sweet squishiness. The same buns are also a popular choice for lobster rolls served up and down the East Coast. Momofuku mastermind David Chang uses Martin’s rolls for his fried chicken sandwiches at Fuku (where the buns are steamed, rather than toasted). Martin’s rolls are also favored for veggie burgers: Brooks Headley, the former pastry chef at Mario Batali’s Del Posto, uses them at his acclaimed Manhattan veggie burger spot Superiority Burger. “I’ve tried to make them. Tried really hard. It’s that squish! Can’t capture the squish,” Headley told Grub Street.
Expect to see Martin’s potato rolls appearing in more home kitchens, too: With demand fueled by word-of-mouth, the company is slowly rolling out its products to grocers in the South; they landed in Nashville stores in mid-January, and the next major market on the horizon is Texas. Julie Martin seems confident that the company can keep up with growing demand, noting that the amount of buns it supplies to Shake Shack’s 100-plus locations is “actually quite small” in the grand scheme of things — though the chain plans to ultimately have as many as 450 locations in the U.S. alone, though, which would further propel Martin’s growth. Says Julie Martin: “We obviously hope for their continued success, because we get to go with them where they go.”
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior reporter.
Editor: Daniela Galarza