Berman grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City. His father ran gas stations and car washes. Berman did general labor at these businesses on weekends and summers while growing up. He attended Transylvania University in Kentucky. After graduating from college in 1964, Berman went on to William and Mary School of Law and was class of 1967. His son is former Silver Jews musician David Berman, whose relationship has been estranged due to David's strong disapproval of his father's work.
After law school, Berman worked as a labor law attorney for Bethlehem Steel, and from 1969 to 1972 he served as a corporate lawyer for Dana, an automotive parts company in Toledo, Ohio. From 1972 to 1974 he was employed as labor law director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
He moved into the food and beverage industry in 1975 under the mentorship of Norman Brinker, founder and owner of the Steak & Ale chain of restaurants. Berman started a government affairs program, launched his first PAC for Brinker, and worked there until 1984. He served as executive vice president of Pillsbury Restaurant Group from 1984 to 1986. In 1986, he formed Berman and Company. In 1991, he created the Employment Policies Institute to research entry-level work issues and argue "the importance of minimum wage jobs for the poor and uneducated." In practice, this translated to opposing minimum wage hikes on the theory that they would reduce employment.
In the 1990s, Berman was the president of Beverage Retailers Against Drunk Driving (BRADD), an organization formed to combat Mothers Against Drunk Driving. As president, he argued for "tolerance of social drinking." He has also worked as a consultant for the Minimum Wage Coalition to Save Jobs.
Berman has appeared on 60 Minutes, The Colbert Report, and CNN in support of his organizations.60 Minutes has called him "the booze and food industries' weapon of mass destruction," labor union activist Richard Bensinger gave him the nickname "Dr. Evil," and Michael Kranish of the Boston Globe dubbed him a “pioneer” in the “realm of opinion molding.” In September 2013, the Huffington Post included Berman on its list of members in “America's Ruling Class Hall of Shame."
As of May 2009, Berman was the sole owner and executive director of Berman and Company, a for-profit management firm that ran fifteen corporate-funded groups, including the Center for Consumer Freedom. He has held at least sixteen positions within these interlocking organizations. As of 2010, just six of these nonprofits provided as much as 70% of Berman and Company's revenue. Bloomberg News reported that from 2008 to 2010, Berman and Company was paid $15 million from donations to his five nonprofit organizations. Through these organizations, Berman and Company has received 60 "POLLIE Awards" since 2002 from the American Association of Political Consultants.
Organizations founded and managed by Berman include:
The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) was originally named the Guest Choice Network (GCN). CCF serves as an advocate for restaurants, meat, dairy, food processors, and alcohol. The group was formed in 1995 with funding from tobacco giant Phillip Morris. CCF has challenged the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. CCF also runs the awareness campaigns HumaneWatch and PETA Kills Animals, which harshly criticizes the practices of HSUS and PETA, respectively. These campaigns raise awareness that "The Humane Society of the United States gives less than one percent of the money it raises to local pet shelters", and that "PETA kills 89% of the adoptable dogs and cats in its care". Berman's attacks on animal organizations have gained support from many individuals and organizations working in the agriculture and agribusiness sector. In March 2013, Charity Navigator issued a Donor Advisory advising that "the majority of the Center for Consumer Freedom's program expenses are being directed to its CEO Richard Berman's for-profit management company, Berman and Company". The Chicago Tribune depicted CCF as an organization that "employs razor-sharp wit and unconventional tactics." Berman and Company does not publicly name its clients; 60 Minutes obtained a list of companies that funded the Center for Consumer Freedom in 2002. Among the parties named were The Coca-Cola Company, Tyson Foods, Outback Steakhouse, Wendy's International, Inc., Brinker International (parent company of Chili's and Macaroni Grill), Arby's, Hooters, and Red Lobster.
The American Beverage Institute (ABI) is opposed to laws intended to criminalize alcohol consumption, including the push to further lower existing blood-alcohol arrest thresholds. In May 2010, the Humane Society and MADD filed a complaint with the New York Commission on Public Integrity, charging that the American Beverage Institute was in fact lobbying but had failed to register with the state as lobbyists.
The Employment Policies Institute (EPI) is opposed to raising the minimum wage, particularly in the labor-intensive restaurant industry. TIME Magazine described EPI’s work as helping to “lay the groundwork for the minimum-wage fight in 2014.” It points to academic studies alleging that increases in the minimum wage lead to job losses, particularly among the poor and uneducated. The reliability of EPI's research has been contested by academics including Saul D. Hoffman, professor of economics at the University of Delaware. In March 2013 Charity Navigator issued a donor advisory concerning EPI.
The Center for Union Facts (CUF) or Employee Freedom Action Committee argues that unions are corrupt and bad for workers. It has run full-page ads in major print media outlets (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) blaming trade unions for the bankruptcies of American industries. The CUF website purports that it is the largest online database of labor-union reporting on salaries, budgets, and political spending. CUF has produced TV ads alleging intimidation by trade unions. CUF is a non-profit; 2007 federal tax returns showed revenues of $2.5 million, with $840,000 being paid to Berman and Company for management services.
The Enterprise Freedom Action Committee is a political action committee targeting Democratic candidates. It is taxempt as of 2007. Charity Navigator has advised that the majority of the group's expenses are payments to Berman and Company. In March 2016, it became public that the group spent $315,000 on a campaign against Donald Trump.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center have criticized Berman. HSUS has carried out its own investigations of CCF and Berman, and filed complaints about CCF with the IRS. CCF has responded by filing its own complaint with the IRS against HSUS.
Labor groups pushing to increase the minimum wage are also taking a tough line against Berman and his clients. The Restaurant Opportunities Center has taken an aggressive approach in its campaigns against Berman's base of support within the National Restaurant Association and related enterprises.
In a document released by The New York Times on October 30, 2014, from a talk Berman gave to the Western Energy Alliance, Berman reassured potential donors about the concern that they might be found out as a supporter of one of his organizations: "We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity." He also touted his "win ugly" method of personal attacks on labor union leaders, environmentalists, and others who opposed him.
In a January 4, 2015 article, Salon criticized Berman as a propagandist, "a gifted translator of biz-think into the common sense of the millions".
In February 3, 2015, an opinion piece in Guns Magazine passed criticism that Berman received for putting profit over principle was countered with the claim that critics have not “made that case with examples of documented unethical practices, or by refuting anything the man, who decries a government nanny state and endorses personal responsibility, claims.”
Berman has responded to such criticism by stating that his groups have acted as "watchdogs who question the motivation, tactics and fundraising efforts of these powerful groups" and that targets "throw mud" instead of "debating the actual issues".