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Berman Enterprises founders moved from dairy to retail

In 1932, after his father went broke during the Great Depression, 17-year-old Melvin Berman hitchhiked from Florida to Baltimore to work in his uncle's dairy store.

In a few years he had made enough contacts to strike out on his own, and he started a cheesecake business, becoming the largest seller in the Washington area. His unusual practice of replacing his customers' unsold, perishable cheesecakes with fresh ones, for free, garnered him a loyal stable of customers.

One of his contacts during this time was Arthur Robinson, another dairy businessman, who had developed the process of making products from what was previously considered to be dairy "waste." Robinson was born on his family's farm in Howard County and had also been in the dairy business since he was a teenager. Berman and Robinson formed a partnership in 1939 and bought the Olney Acres Dairy Products plant on Route 216 in Scaggsville, where it still sits today, owned by the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Association.

The deal also included the land around the milk plant, including much of the acreage that later became Hammond Hills. Berman and Robinson built homes on the corner of Leishear and Gorman roads, across the street from the plant. For many years, there were only a few other houses in the area.

Berman as salesman and Robinson as manufacturer made a good team. Their business flourished — expanding into West Virginia, New York and Ohio — and Berman's younger brother, Wolford, joined them in 1940.

In 1954, the Bermans and Robinson bought a storefront on Route 40 in Catonsville with the intent of opening an ice cream store.

But the partners expanded their plans, incorporating the storefront into their new development, the Ingleside Shopping Center.

"It was an accidental occurrence," said Melvin Berman's son, Dennis. "They didn't buy the property with that in mind."

Ingleside Shopping Center offered Giant Food's first store in the Baltimore market, along with an Acme supermarket, Miles Shoes and Woolworth's, among others. The shopping center was an immediate success and prompted the partners to look for more opportunities.

In 1955, they sold the dairy plant to the Milk Producers Association for $1 million and began to concentrate on real estate and retail development.

—Kevin Leonard

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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