John Papazian Martin, a pioneer in Maine’s restaurant and supermarket industries, died Saturday in Boca Raton, Fla., at age 93.
Martin is probably best known in the Portland area for his restaurants, such as the Merry Manor in South Portland and the Art Gallery in downtown Portland, which operated for many years.
Mr. Martin also was known for being able to market his products in unusual ways, such as sending roses to all the mothers of newborns in Portland, or offering all-you-can-eat lobster specials to his restaurant customers.
“He was probably the most conscientious, customer-driven client I have ever worked for,” said Bob Cott, who handled Mr. Martin’s advertising needs. “He actually read each and every customer comment card. He expected absolute perfection from every one of his employees.”
Mr. Martin was born in 1917, the son of Armenian immigrants who fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey. They arrived in Portland in the early 1900s.
Mr. Martin attended Portland schools, but when his parents passed away he was forced to drop out after completing eighth grade so he could go to work, said his son, Peter Martin of Winslow.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he returned to Portland and founded the 20th Century Supermarket on Congress Street with his partner, George Amergian. During that time he hired Augustus “Gus” Barber, the future founder of Barber Foods in Portland.
Peter Martin said his father gained recognition for his creative merchandising skills. “He wanted to stand out as the young upstart,” Martin said.
Mr. Martin eventually formed a relationship with Hannaford Bros., helping the company operate 11 grocery stores in Maine and New Hampshire. All of those stores were eventually purchased by Hannaford.
“He gave Hannaford their economic foundation,” his son said. “But he eventually decided to sell out. It was amicable.”
In the early 1970s, Mr. Martin began his second career, establishing the line of John Martin’s Restaurants.
His first restaurant was called the Art Gallery on Center Street in Portland — a space now occupied by the nightclub called Asylum.
“It was the first restaurant in Maine with a really big salad bar,” his son recalled.
Mr. Martin also owned and operated the Merry Manor restaurant in South Portland, as well as restaurants in Waterville, Auburn, Nashua, N.H., and Saugus, Mass.
“He promoted his restaurants like it was a supermarket,” said his longtime business acquaintance, Paul Trusiani, who owns Paul’s Foods on Congress Street.
Trusiani said Mr. Martin inspired him to pursue a career in operating a supermarket. He recalled the lobster promotion that Mr. Martin ran when he was operating the 20th Century Supermarket. Mr. Martin had received a large order of lobsters; to move the merchandise quickly, he sold them for 25 cents each.
“There were so many people buying lobsters that Congress Street was littered with shells,” Trusiani said.
Mr. Martin sold all of his restaurants, with the exception of the Waterville Manor, in 1985. His son operated Waterville Manor until he sold it in 2005.
Mr. Martin began splitting his time between Maine and Florida, where he eventually retired.
Peter Martin said his father created thousands of jobs over the course of his ventures.
“At our peak (in the restaurant period) we must have employed over 700 people,” his son said. “Many of those workers went on to own their own restaurants.”
Despite his business successes, Cott, who owns an advertising agency in Portland, said Mr. Martin never forgot what drove that success.
“He was kind and had a wonderful sense of humor, but he was always watching out for his customers,” Cott said. “John always delivered on his promises.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: