C. Nelson Berman Sr., founder and former president of Belair Produce Co., died Monday of heart failure at Oak Crest Village in Parkville. He was 87 and a former Ruxton resident.
Mr. Berman, a loquacious and perpetually cheerful man whose wide smile was as much a part of him as his easygoing demeanor, grew up in the produce business.
Born and raised on East 33rd Street, Mr. Berman began working as a youngster in the produce stall his father, Maurice "Mollie" Berman, had established at Belair Market at Gay and Forest streets in 1910.
Mr. Berman's "first job was pyramiding oranges and working as a sales clerk," said a son, Robert Berman of Timonium, who also worked in the family business.
"We all started pyramiding oranges because that's how you start in the produce business. That's how he started us out," the son said with a laugh.
"He got the nickname of `Snap' because he was always snapping the ends off the green beans to show customers how fresh they were," said another son, C. Nelson "Buzz" Berman Jr., president and owner of the business, now in Hanover, Anne Arundel County.
A City College graduate, Mr. Berman took over the family business after his father retired in the 1950s. The business was beginning to feel competition from supermarket chains and changing shopping habits.
Mr. Berman transformed the business from retail to wholesale, supplying fresh produce to ships in port, restaurants, hospitals, clubs and food-service institutions.
He moved the operation from Belair Market to a newer and larger facility in Highlandtown. The produce -- delivered in a fleet of green Chevrolet panel trucks -- went to such venerable culinary and social landmarks as the Eager House, Prime Rib, Haussner's, Orchard Inn, Turf Inn and Phillips Harborplace Restaurant, as well as the Maryland Club, Baltimore Country Club and Woodholme Country Club.
Today, the business distributes its produce throughout Maryland, and in Washington, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, aboard white trucks with green lettering.
An innovative man, Mr. Berman came up with the idea of delivering prepared salad greens to Gino's, Rustler, Ponderosa and Red Barn and other fast-food restaurants, just as the salad-bar craze emerged in the early 1970s.
He retired in 1982.
Mr. Berman was a founder in the late 1940s of the Monday Club, an informal group of friends and business associates that met weekly over steaks and Manhattan cocktails to help one another expand their businesses.
"He loved people," C. Nelson Berman Jr. said. "He loved being a small businessman in Baltimore."
Mr. Berman enjoyed traveling and was a member of the Towson Elks Lodge.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, Baltimore and Ware avenues, Towson.
Mr. Berman also is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Helen Caslin; and five grandchildren.