Martin’s potato rolls are often considered the single best store-bought hamburger bun, with their sweet, squishy nature bringing them to the top of the list in taste tests at Serious Eats and Epicurious, and making them the bun of choice at Shake Shack since the chain opened in 2004. But starting last week, food industry members have urged Shake Shack and other restaurants to boycott Martin’s products as a result of the political affiliations of the Martin family, which founded the company in 1955 and has run it ever since.
The Philadelphia publication Billy Penn reported last month that executive chair Jim Martin has provided over $100,000 of support to the far-right Pennsylvania senator and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano — constituting the largest single donation to Mastriano’s campaign donation this year or last. Those ties extend further, Billy Penn found, as Martin’s daughter and wife — who both work at the company — have also made donations to Mastriano’s campaign.
Mastriano, a Trump-endorsed politician, has supported anti-abortion laws with no exceptions and denialist ideas about both COVID vaccines and the legitimacy of the 2020 election; in 2018, he compared calls for gun control in the United States to Germany under Hitler. In addition to attending the January 6 rally that led to the insurrection on the Capitol, which resulted in some calls for his resignation, Mastriano spent thousands shuttling supporters to the event. In April, he campaigned at a Christian conference that peddled QAnon conspiracy theories. Although Martin’s gave a statement to Billy Penn stating that the company does not support any candidate or party, despite the views of the family, some restaurant owners and shoppers are considering alternatives to Martin’s popular potato rolls.
The question of boycotts is particularly important when it comes to big restaurant chains, who not only use huge amounts of Martin’s products but have also done the most to raise the brand’s public image. Last week, cookbook author J. Kenji López-Alt and mathematician Joe Rosenthal began leading the charge to boycott via Instagram. “I will not be buying any more Martin’s products, nor will I support any establishment that uses their buns until they change suppliers, and I’d urge you to do the same if you don’t want your dollars supporting this stuff,” López-Alt wrote, putting pressure on Shake Shack and the Philadelphia chain Federal Donuts in particular. While Shake Shack didn’t provide figures, a 2017 Eater report estimated that, at the time, the company went through at least tens of millions of Martin’s buns per year.
The comments on both posts suggest other food folks across the country — including Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, Cherry Bombe’s Kerry Diamond, and chef and burger expert Sammy Monsour — are giving up Martin’s potato rolls. Zack Fernandes of the Bay Area burger pop-up Lil’ Eagle Burger told the San Francisco Chronicle that he plans to switch suppliers or make his own buns after he runs through his Martin’s supply this weekend. “I cannot in good conscience use Martin’s products any longer for Lil’ Eagle pop-ups, especially while people I love still live in the state of Pennsylvania,” Fernandes said.
Despite these calls for action, Billy Penn reported last night that Shake Shack doesn’t appear to be budging from its brand-famous buns. The company said in a statement:
Shake Shack has always championed equality, inclusion and belonging at our company — and we know these values are important to our guests and team members. Shake Shack does not make political donations, nor does the company endorse the political donations of private individuals. In regards to the actions of individuals associated with the Martin’s company and their personal political donations — those are the choices of those individuals and do not express the values of Shake Shack. We continue to be in active conversations with Martin’s to express our concern.
Federal Donuts responded to an Instagram comment to say that the company was aware of the issue and is working on it, and reiterated to Billy Penn: “I’m happy to confirm FedNuts’ message that they have been working on this.” (Eater has reached out to Federal Donuts, but has not yet received a response.)
However, neither Shake Shack nor Federal Donuts has, as of this writing, addressed the Martin’s situation in social media posts. The top comments on Shake Shack’s most recent post, a Pride-inspired shake promotion benefitting the Trevor Project, are full of calls for the company to switch suppliers; as commenters point out, this type of corporate Pride content doesn’t square with Martin’s implicit support of a candidate who shows, as the Philadelphia Inquirer has described, “open hostility toward his own state’s LGBTQ+ community.”
Until another bakery takes up the mantle of best burger bun, some cooks may be considering the option of perfecting the potato roll at home. From chef Nyesha Arrington, here’s one way to do that. The trade-off: More work, but a bit more control over where your money is going.
Update: June 8, 2022, 2:40 p.m.: This article was updated to include the full statement from Shake Shack.