A burger from Mike's BBQ on a Martin's potato roll

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The family behind Martin’s potato bread has put itself behind Doug Mastriano, a South Central Pa. state senator who rose to prominence as a Trump-supporting election denier, and espouses what some define as Christian nationalist rhetoric. He is also the front-running Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor.

Potato roll magnate Jim Martin has given Mastriano’s gubernatorial campaign well over $100k. That’s causing some worry among Philly restaurateurs that serve Martin’s products.

“It’s very concerning,” said a Philadelphia restaurant owner who has items with Martin’s potato bread on the menu and asked not to be named. “As things become more polarized and politicians become more extreme, do we have to draw a line somewhere?”

Mastriano was present at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in DC that led to an attack on the Capitol. He has been subpoenaed by the congressional committee that is investigating the insurrection. He attended and raised money for his campaign at “Patriots Arise for God and Country,” a conference last month that promoted QAnon beliefs and other conspiracy theories. Recent reports indicate establishment Republicans are freaking out over Mastriano’s strong numbers in the polls ahead of next week’s primary.

He also supports a complete ban on abortion, with no exceptions. Mastriano introduced a “heartbeat bill,” which would make it illegal to have an abortion in Pa. after around 6 weeks — before many people know they’re pregnant — and said he plans to call for a vote on the bill if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

That issue was of particular concern to some customers of Mike’s BBQ in South Philly. Two separate people contacted the restaurant about its use of Martin’s products, according to owner Mike Strauss, who said he reached out to the Chambersburg-based bakery to ask about it.

Martin’s hasn’t responded, Strauss said. “At this point, I’m probably going to stop using them.”

Campaign cash rolls in

Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe in South Central Pennsylvania was founded by Jim Martin’s parents, Lloyd and Lois Martin, in 1955. The brand’s reach has expanded greatly since then, and it’s now found in stores all along the East Coast, as well as in Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans and parts of Texas, and on the menus of some national restaurant chains. Jim helped his parents from the beginning and eventually became president of the company, serving in that role until last July, when he passed the reins to his own son, Tony Martin, but stayed on as executive chair of the board.

According to campaign finance records filed with the state, Jim Martin gave $110k to Mastriano’s gubernatorial campaign last year — $10k in May and another $100k in December, just before Christmas.

No other donor has written a six-figure check to Mastriano’s campaign this year or last. That one contribution also dwarfs any donation Mastriano has received from a political action committee. Instead, he has brought in over $1.6 million in smaller contributions from several thousand individual donors.

Jim’s wife Donna Martin, who helps run the company, this year provided Mastriano’s campaign with an in-kind donation worth a little over $4k. The description of that contribution in candidate filings is listed as “travel.”

Daughter Julie Martin, social media manager for the potato bread company, also gave $2k last year.

The association isn’t new. Jim Martin in 2020 gave $11k to Mastriano’s campaign, and a year prior, the Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe in Chambersburg hosted a public hearing for a committee Mastriano chaired in the state Senate.

Mastriano’s wife, Rebecca Stewart, was previously a chaplain at Martin’s, according to Mastriano’s campaign website, as part of an organization called Marketplace Ministries, which provides private businesses with clergypeople whom employees can turn to as needed.

Martin’s did not respond to a request for comment by Billy Penn.

Voting with dollars

Several Philadelphia restaurants name-drop Martin’s products on menus, and the Martin’s handle is mentioned by food vendors near and far when posting thirst-traps of their burgers and sandwiches.

Some of the most famous Martin’s users are Philly-based Federal Donuts and national burger chain Shake Shack. (Federal Donuts declined to comment for this story, and Shake Shack didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Some local restaurateurs weren’t aware of Martin’s political donations until hearing from Billy Penn.

Jeff Walcott, a co-owner of Soup Kitchen Cafe and Pom Pom restaurants, said the news of Martin’s ties to Mastriano is “really unfortunate because I’m quite fond of the product.” Pom Pom lists Martin’s potato rolls as one of several bread options on its menu. He said Pom Pom would use its existing inventory and then figure out how to proceed.

Strauss, of Mike’s BBQ, said he’s not planning an announcement about the decision to stop using Martin’s products for his Wednesday burger pop-ups — the rest of his sandwiches use different brands of bread already. He usually stays out of politics, he said, but he is disturbed in this case because Mastriano “is so extreme.”

“I would prefer for my money not to support that,” he said.

Boycotting companies because of their ties to political figures or families gained new prominence in recent years, particularly when Donald Trump was running for president, and throughout his four years in the White House.

One of the local brands caught up in that wave was Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery. After Eric Trump stopped by the Pottsville brewery for a tour in 2016, and Dick Yuengling expressed support for then-candidate Donald, the company was hit with a barrage of vitriolic feedback and calls for a boycott. But, Yuengling told Billy Penn later, it ultimately didn’t hurt sales.