Supermarket innovator Melvin Weitz, who built a chain of 17 Foodtown supermarkets on Long Island, died of natural causes on June 4 at his home in Boca Raton, Florida. He was 91.

"He was a very astute businessman," said his son Bruce Weitz, 67, of Cresskill, New Jersey. "He was very customer-centric and a great old-time merchant."

Born on Dec. 20, 1923, in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, Weitz began delivering milk to his Brooklyn neighbors at age 6 to help support his family during the Depression. He dropped out of Lafayette High School and eventually enlisted in the military.

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Weitz served in the Navy during World War II and survived the sinking of the USS Quincy at the Battle of Savo Island in the Pacific Ocean on Aug. 9, 1942. Weitz spent hours in the water attempting to rescue his shipmates. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

Following World War II, Weitz worked his way up in the grocery business, eventually becoming president of Big Apple Supermarkets in New York.

In 1972, he started his own company, Melmarkets Inc., which did business as Foodtown Supermarkets, a cooperative of independently owned grocery stores. He built Melmarkets Foodtown from a single store in East Rockaway to locations across Nassau and Suffolk counties. The stores averaged 60,000 square feet at a time when most stores were 42,000 square feet.

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"He believed that everybody could sell a can of Campbell's soup, so he focused on the perishables like the produce department, the deli, the meat department and the bakeries," Bruce Weitz said.

Jon Greenfield, who owns three ShopRite locations on Long Island, said Weitz helped his family avoid bankruptcy after Greenfield's father died in 1972. Weitz looked through the money-losing store's financial statements and gave Greenfield, then a 21-year-old English major, tips on running it.

"Mel Weitz held my hand for 23 years until he retired, and he didn't get anything," said Greenfield, 63. "We have a good business today and that was 100 percent because of Mel."

Hofstra University established the Mel Weitz Distinguished Professorship in Business in 1982.

Weitz retired in 1995 when Stop & Shop purchased Melmarkets for more than $82 million. He moved to Boca Raton after living for more than three decades on Long Island in Merrick and Lido Beach.

"He was a larger-than-life character," said his daughter, Lori Shabtai, of Manhattan. "Everything I know about retail, I really learned from my father," said Shabtai, a commercial real estate broker.

Weitz was buried Monday at the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth, Florida. In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by his third wife, Ellen; two other children, Steven Weitz, of Lido Beach, and Pamela Gordon, of California; two stepchildren, Sage Augello, of Oyster Bay Cove, and Lannie Lipson, of Chappaqua; and 14 grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Weitz' name to the charity of the donor's choice.