early and often

The Potato Roll Empire Bankrolling a Christian Nationalist

The Martin family were bit players in politics, until Doug Mastriano came along.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

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In December 2019, Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano convened a public hearing on deregulation at an unusual address in his district: 1000 Potato Roll Lane, the global headquarters of Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe in Chambersburg. A large banner hanging behind Mastriano advertised the company’s pillowy potato rolls, world famous for cradling Shake Shack burgers.

Before the hearing, Mastriano invited J. Anthony “Tony” Martin, then the company’s executive vice-president, to the front of the room to cut a large ceremonial string of red tape. Once finished, Martin testified that he’d once needed Mastriano’s predecessor to intervene to stop the state’s Transportation Department from jamming up a project at the Martin’s headquarters. For Martin, the ordeal was a perfect example of the unnecessary hoops the government forced businesses to jump through. But it was also an example of his family’s political connections paying off — the Martins had given generously to the lawmaker, which he failed to mention. After the hearing, everyone went home with a Martin’s tote bag filled with potato rolls, according to Ezra Thrush, an environmental lobbyist who attended the meeting. “It was very weird,” he says. “Usually, these things are held at state government properties or local municipal government buildings, not a company’s headquarters. It felt very slippery.”

Nearly two years to the day later, Mastriano returned to 1000 Potato Roll Lane. Once again, he lined up with Tony Martin and other members of the Martin family for a photo op to commemorate the groundbreaking of a 260,000-square-foot baking line, which, Martin remarked, would lead the company into the future. The Republican state senator was also thinking about his future — a run for governor. He’d spent much of 2021 raising money for such a campaign, and the Martin family was already among his top donors. A few weeks later, shortly before Mastriano officially announced his campaign, Jim Martin, the 75-year-old patriarch of the family and chairman of the board, donated $100,000 to Mastriano’s bid, by far the largest single contribution the state senator would receive during the primary.

The heavy support shocked both longtime customers and veteran political observers, neither of whom had realized the potato-roll empire had propped up Mastriano, who had been little known outside of his district before the pandemic. Over the past two years, Mastriano has won a die-hard base by casting his opposition to lockdown mandates as a holy battle, a framing he also used to claim the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. After the election, Mastriano organized buses for, and attended, the rally that precipitated the attack on the Capitol. As governor, he has said he “could decertify every machine in the state with a stroke of a pen” because he would appoint the secretary of state overseeing the electoral system, raising the possibility he could enact a one-man coup in 2024. (A spokesperson for Mastriano did not respond to requests for comment.)

“We are aware of recent criticisms leveled against Martin’s and our business partners,” Julie Martin, the company’s social-media manager, said in a statement. “Like the rest of the country, Martin’s employees, business partners, and customers hold to a diverse range of personal opinions, beliefs, and values. Although the stockholders who own the company are members of the same family, they also hold a wide range of views. For these reasons, the company, as a matter of policy, does not support any particular candidate or party.”

But the line between the company and the family is blurry. Julie Martin, the spokesperson, is Jim Martin’s daughter, and her brothers, Tony and Joe, serve as president and vice-president of operations. Other members of the family serve throughout the company, and their family factors heavily in the company’s social-media presence, as does their devout Christian faith. Like Mastriano, the Martins are members of a conservative denomination with Mennonite roots. Throughout his campaign, Mastriano unabashedly used the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, the idea that God ordained the United States as a Christian country. The idea, which gained popularity under Trump and is embraced by figures such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, rejects the separation of church and state and promotes more religion in politics, not less. Should Mastriano be elected in November, it would be perhaps the largest triumph for Christian nationalism in recent memory, and it would be thanks, in no small part, to the Martins.

The origin story of Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe reads like a business-school fairy tale. In the 1950s, Lloyd and Lois Martin started baking bread in their one-car garage to sell at local farmers’ markets. In 1968, they opened a restaurant, and ten years later, they broke ground on a production bakery at the site of the present-day headquarters. The bakery enjoyed steady success, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that Martin’s became a massive operation, supplying some of the largest supermarkets on the East Coast and in the South, lining the shelves of Walmart, Target, and BJ’s, and providing burger buns for restaurants around the globe.

Martin’s success is, in part, thanks to its association with Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which has used its buns since opening its first location in Madison Square Park in 2004. “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’s culinary director, Mark Rosati, told Eater in 2017. According to its website, Shake Shack now operates 369 locations around the world, and Martin’s executives often boast of the products’ popularity in places as far as Saudi Arabia. To keep up, the company has undergone a number of expansions at its Chambersburg campus and added a large baking line in Valdosta, Georgia.

Long before Meyer, the Martins attributed their company’s growth to another higher power. “Lord receives credit for potato roll company success,” read the headline of a 1991 story in the local Chambersburg newspaper. According to the story, the Martin’s office occupied a former Christian school, and its lobby was decorated with mats that read “Jesus Christ Is Lord” and “Let’s Just Praise the Lord.” In the lobby of its current headquarters is a quote from the Gospel of Mark carved in large stone letters: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the world, and loses his own soul?”

Like many in rural Pennsylvania, both the Mastrianos and the Martins adhere to faiths with roots in the Mennonite church. The Martins worship at Antrim Brethren in Christ Church, and the Mastrianos are said to be members of Pond Bank Community Church, a Conservative Mennonite congregation just five miles away. According to Mastriano’s campaign website, his wife, Rebecca Mastriano, works as a chaplain in the Martin’s factory. She was placed there by Marketplace Ministries, a nonprofit that provides clergy to private businesses in order to minister to their employees.

For Pennsylvania’s Anabaptist congregations, Mastriano’s campaign may represent a defining moment because Christian nationalism is at odds with the Conservative Mennonite Conference’s theology, which believes the church is distinct from the state. Though he has rejected the label, Mastriano has consistently championed Christian nationalist efforts. As reported by The New Yorker, he joined attempts to get state legislatures to introduce and rewrite laws that mandate school prayer, outlaw same-sex couples from adopting children, and institute a total ban on abortion that includes instances of rape, incest, or threat to a mother’s life. A former Army colonel, Mastriano delivers lines about spiritual warfare with a militaristic thump. “The forces of darkness are hitting us really hard right now,” he told hundreds of supporters in a church parking lot in April. “We’re going to bring the state back to righteousness. This is our day, our hour, to take our state back and renew the blessings of America.” (Mastriano’s rhetoric and history in the Army present another problem for his church, which rejects violence and war so much that it includes instructions on how to become a conscientious objector on its website.) According to Politico, the lower-right corner of his campaign signs are stamped with John 8:36, which reads, “If the Son therefore will set you free, you will truly be the children of liberty.”

While the Martins donated to typical conservative causes, such as Trump and the National Rifle Association, they were bit players in Pennsylvania before this year’s Republican primary. “To my knowledge, they’ve never been any more than peripherally active in politics,” says Charlie Gerow, a longtime GOP strategist who placed eighth in the Republican primary. Other political strategists said they knew very little about the family’s political aims. “It wasn’t really until this Mastriano thing that I began to even think about them as anything other than just a bunch of happy Christian bread-makers,” said John Fea, the chair of the history department at Messiah University, a small Evangelical school an hour north of Chambersburg.

Perhaps because of the Martins’ propensity to inject their faith into their business, it’s easy to imagine the family as being supportive of a singularly Christian lawmaker. If so, it would be out of step with the Brethren in Christ theology the Martins practice, according to Fea. Over the years, Fea’s university, which was founded by the Brethren in Christ Church, has been one of the biggest recipients of the Martins’ philanthropy; a scholarship at Messiah is named after the family, as is an annex to the dining hall, and Jim Martin sits on the board of trustees.

“If the Martin family’s political sensibility represents or is equivalent to what Mastriano’s teaching, there would be a clear tension with Messiah’s political posture, which historically has been almost apolitical,” says Fea. “Messiah has consistently taken a position that there’s a clear separation between what we at Messiah would call the Kingdom of God and the United States of America. This is a college that, because of its historic Anabaptist roots, does not even fly a flag on campus because that would suggest that the nation was more important than the church.”

Now that Mastriano’s name is atop the ticket, the Martin family’s support of a fringe, virulently anti-democratic candidate has gotten national attention, and the potato-roll family is facing blowback in the food world. “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,” J. Kenji López-Alt, a chef and writer with a devoted following, wrote on Instagram earlier this month, sharing a report from Billy Penn that detailed Martin’s support of Mastriano. “I bought my last last night,” Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio chimed in. The news was followed by a string of proclamations from business owners in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York that they would no longer be selling Martin’s rolls.

Democrats hope Mastriano’s far-right, election-denying talking points will prove fatal when he faces Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro in November. “He drives away almost every Democrat, he loses a ton of independents on that, and he loses some Republicans who aren’t crazy about Democrats but want to see elections held fairly and consistent with our Democratic principles,” says Ed Rendell, the state’s Democratic former governor, who had never even heard of the Martins prior to their backing of Mastriano. “He’s running in a state that has 500,000 more Democrat voters, so it’s virtually an impossible hill to climb.”

Shapiro’s campaign was so confident Mastriano’s radical messaging would turn off voters in the general election that it paid for an ad designed to help Mastriano beat his primary opponents. “The Martins weren’t Doug Mastriano’s biggest supporters; Josh Shapiro was,” says Gerow. In the end, Mastriano trounced his opponents in the primary last month, winning 44 percent of the vote, nearly double that of the runner-up. Mastriano’s victory was enough to push Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia from “toss-up” to “leans Democrat,” but few races are safe bets for Democrats this year given high inflation and Joe Biden’s low approval rating. For now, Shapiro has a large lead in at least one category: He raised nearly $18 million during his primary run, $16.6 million more than Mastriano — a fundraising gap of which the Martins are surely aware.

The Potato Roll Empire Bankrolling a Christian Nationalist