Before there was Ronco and the Veg-O-Matic, way ahead of George Foreman and his grill, back when infomercials were a gleam in a pitchman's eye, Chris Nahatis of Manchester was showing New England TV audiences how to chop, peel, grate, slice and shred as fast as he could talk and bang pans.
Anyone who watched local television from the '50s into the '90s couldn't miss the mustachioed Nahatis, who turns 90 this year, hawk the Saladmaster wares.
The great-grandfather recently celebrated 60 years selling the "not sold in stores" cookware from three-minute spots on pioneering TV stations in the 1950s to 30-minute pioneering paid presentations, and now, online marketing.
Still displaying his patented energy, charm and talkativity (minus the mustache and apron), Nahatis said he is "going strong" as president of the Saladmaster sales and distribution network for New England and six European countries, with an assist from his daughter, Stephanie, the sales director. He declined to disclose sales figures.
"Business is unbelievable," said the man who personified getting the proverbial foot — and mouth — in the door. During his career, Nahatis broke all sales records for the Texas-based company; his sales in 1956, for example, topped $5 million, earning a legendary spot in the annals of direct marketing and racking up 2.5 million miles in the air on behalf of Saladmaster.
Nahatis invented the infomercial in 1954, refining his spiel for the Saladmaster device on stations in Poland Spring, Maine — where he appears to this day — and Providence.
"I'd show up with a potato in one pocket, an apple in another and cut like crazy," he says.
Later that year, producers of the flagging "Daily Almanac" show on WBZ in Boston offered him a three-minute spot for $50.
"It was supposed to be their last show," recalled Nahatis. "The program director told me to fill the air. 'Take your time, Chris,' he said. If management complains, I'll tell them my watch stopped."
The gambit worked. The show received 196 letters the next day about Nahatis, he said, and Saladmaster became a prime sponsor.
"I kept them on the air for 15 years," he recalls.
In 1971, when Julia Child was just beginning to make "live" cooking an art form and entertainment staple, Nahatis debuted live cooking demonstrations at the Boston Home Show.
"It was an instant success," he said. "We went from filling 30 seats one year to the whole mezzanine the next. We did $239,000 in sales at one home show."
That was more than 40 years ago, when the Saladmaster machine, a solid steel, hand-powered pre-Cuisinart, cost $30. It now costs $355 to $420. An expanded line of top-grade pots, pans and utensils is also available.
"We sell to people who care about their health," said the putative posterboy. Nahatis beat back a bout of cancer in 1978 with customary dispatch, ordering his doctor to schedule surgery in a tight widow of opportunity between sales commitments.
His slight limp, Nahatis explains, almost apologetically, is the result of being hit by a car.
Other than that, he says, he is in prime shape, and manifests what seems to be nigh-perfect recall as he reels off names, dates, places and numbers in staccato style.
"Your health is your wealth," he says, echoing a Saladmaster aphorism.
The Nahatises work out of a bungalow on Beach Street that sits opposite the town harbor in Manchester and has been the family home from 1921. That was when downtown Manchester was truly by the sea; the water lapped up to his doorstep, said Nahatis, who was born there in 1922. The house became his office in 1960.
As with many men of enterprise who came of age in the 1940s, Nahatis cut his teeth during the Depression-era struggles. His father had left the family, returning to Greece, said Nahatis, who worked to support the family from when he was a schoolboy of 13.
"I started in a small way as a handyman, working for Manchester Meat Market, delivering orders on my bicycle, setting up displays and sweeping the floors," he said. "I made 25 cents a week, and I told Mr. Elliot, the owner, I would quit unless he doubled my pay. He did."
Nahatis augmented his pay by working Sundays for his godfather, Charlie Psalides, who owned Cape Ann Market on Washington Street in Gloucester and went on to own what are now the Shaw's supermarkets. "He paid me $2 a day." That covered the cost of his family's groceries for a week.
While working those jobs, Nahatis saved up to buy a $2 sales kit and began peddling Zanol Household Products. "I created a route and sold house to house. Those customers paid the mortgage of $113.33" on the Beach Street bungalow. "That was the beginning of my sales career."
That estimable career includes the cover of Inc. magazine in the 1980s as its "Entrepreneur of the Year."
More recently, Manchester selectmen proclaimed Chris Nahatis Day last December to honor his 60 years with Saladmaster. Countless tributes and awards adorn his office walls, highlighted by the two-time Man of the Year honors from the Greek Orthodox Church in Ipswich, where he is a key fund-raiser.
Nahatis graduated high school in 1941, joined the Marines for World War II, married his wife, Alice, in 1946, then heeded the dictate of a fortune teller to "be in manufacturing, not sales."
Working full-time selling groceries, he began making cleaning products in the basement of his home on School Street, what had been the French embassy in the heyday of the North Shore resort community.
But Green Dot bleach and No Mist defogger didn't pay the bills for the stately house, wife and five kids. "I lost my shirt," he says.
On an April day in 1951, three bankers arrived on his doorstep, Nahatis recounted, armed with foreclosure papers.
"I'd been in the basement, making bleach, hot and sweaty, and these guys showed up because I was two months and two weeks late in my mortgage," he says.
"The GI Bill said they couldn't foreclose unless I was three months late," he said. "I asked for another chance. I said, 'What am I going to do with my five children?' They said that's your problem.
"I told them I had a loaded German Luger from the war upstairs and if they served the papers I'd use three of the nine bullets on them."
The bankers pulled back. Serendipity stepped in.
Searching for another source of income, Nahatis met a Saladmaster salesman in Springfield. He sensed a good deal. "I saved up and bought some of his product. I'd go to a gas station in Salem, buy 50 cents worth of gas, do a demonstration, sell a machine for $30, make $10 and send it to the bank.
"I had asked the bank for one more chance, that I was going into a new business.," he said, "and that's when I started with Saladmaster."
Nahatis plumbed his inauspicious route, selling 13 machines in a Tewksbury barroom in one day.
He paid off his mortgage seven years early.
What was the inspiration?
"Desperation," he said, without missing a nanosecond.
Nancy Gaines is a regular Times correspondent.