Dr. Frieda Rapoport Caplan has been called many a curious sobriquet in her 91 years -- “Mother Gooseberry,” the “Kiwi Queen,” the “Princess of Produce” and the “Mick Jagger of Produce,” to name a few. She also holds the title of the first female to launch, own and operate a wholesale business in the male-dominated U.S. produce industry, a designation the pioneering entrepreneur is hesitant to embrace.
“They tell me I was the first, but I’m not the one who lays claim to it,” Caplan says in a gravely, hushed voice, as if to tell a secret. “It was never remarkable to me. I’m sure there were wives, mothers and daughters working in other markets.”
She’s also too modest to acknowledge that she forever changed the American produce landscape, and our palates by extension, by ushering edible oddities out of obscurity and into the mainstream. A magnetic people person and gifted marketer, Caplan did for exotic produce what her friend, famed chef and fellow glass ceiling-smasher Julia Child did for French cuisine: She popularized it amongst the masses.
If not for the tastemaking, gender barrier-crushing visionary, many of us might never have experienced the sweet pleasures of certain strange fruits from far flung corners of the world, like kiwifruit, passion fruit, mangosteen and Asian pear, and dozens of other tropical treasures that now grace plates everywhere, from backyard picnics to fine-dining establishments and everywhere in between.
We also might never have delighted in the satisfying crunch of sugar snap peas, the juicy texture of jicama or the fiery kick of the habanero chile. In all, Caplan’s legendary work has led to the introduction of about 200 exotic fruits and vegetables into U.S. grocery stores and beyond. Charming and easy to get along with, the driven UCLA poli-sci graduate (class of 1945, when tuition only cost $26 a semester) often introduced new products on-site herself, one sample slice at a time, even once on the Late Night with David Letterman Show. (She sampled so much of her peculiar products in convincing others to try them that she eventually became allergic to several of them, even her crowning jewel, kiwifruit.)
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Back in 1962, when she singlehandedly started her business with one lone stall at the historic downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Market, Caplan was an oddity -- as much of an oddity as the then-little known brown mushrooms she soon popularized throughout the country. Always dressed to the nines in a dress, high heels and red lipstick, even on the bustling market floor, she was a full-time working mother when most women were homemakers or secretaries behind the scenes. She was a gutsy lady boss in the old boys club that was -- and, to some, still is -- the “macho mart” world of produce.
“If you ask me, I’m not a barrier breaker. I’m just a marketer,” she says, shrugging her freckled shoulders. “That’s my strength, introducing new, unheard of fruits and vegetables to retailers and then helping them build an appetite for them in the market. That’s me.”
But that wasn’t always her. Before her unplanned entree into exotics, Caplan, raised in a very politically active Jewish Russian immigrant family, headed up several student body election campaigns at UCLA, as well as the campus Red Cross chapter. Seeking to stay politically active, she later worked at a prominent Los Angeles attorney’s office. She was then employed as a production manager in a nylon thread factory after marrying her husband, the late Alfred Hale Caplan, a labor relations consultant and president of the local International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union who negotiated the first contract between Cesar Chavez and grape farmers.
In 1955, the vocal advocate for equal rights, who often says she’s “not the maternal type,” became pregnant with her first daughter and worked right up until her birth. She requested a three-month maternity leave so she could breastfeed her baby, something even trickier to negotiation back then than it is now, decades before the West became obsessed with “work-life balance” and when formula feeding was the general trend.
Caplan initially agreed to return to the nylon factory at the end of her three-month leave, but, wanting to continue breastfeeding, she never did. That’s when she went looking for part-time work and soon found herself crunching numbers in the accounting department of her husband’s aunt and uncle’s fruit company at the old produce market in Los Angeles, a place she describes as “produce heaven as the U.S. was concerned at that time.” Her husband had warned her against working with family, but she did it anyway.
One fateful day, with her husband’s uncle away on holiday, Caplan pitched in on sales floor cash register duty and, with zero sales experience, attempted to sell mushrooms. She was the only -- and first ever -- female sales associate on the floor.
Then a low-demand specialty item, no one wanted any of the fresh fungi, except for one buyer from a large chain store. He asked her for a huge order. She said, yes, of course she could fill it, only to find out that the growers her relatives’ company contracted with were sold out.
“I was petrified,” she says, recalling how she accidentally fell into sourcing unusual produce that particular day in Fear No Fruit, an indie documentary about her legacy released earlier this year.
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Desperate for a solution fast, Caplan packed up her infant in her stationwagon and went on a quest to personally fill the order. She drove farm to farm until, at last, the order was fulfilled.
Opportunity always knocks (and sometimes it flops)
“The world came to me, I did not travel the world,” she says. “People think I traveled all the time, but it was just that there was no place else for farmers with unusual produce to go. No one would talk to them. They weren’t interested, so people would tell them, ‘Go see Frieda. She handles mushrooms. She handles this or that and that’s a specialty. That’s how it started. And they just kept coming. Opportunity knocked and it never stopped.”
First she sourced mushrooms. Then mangoes. More and more hard-to-find speciality fruits and veggies followed and, soon, sourcing specialties became Caplan’s, well, specialty. After she’d gone into business for herself at the urging of executives from the Southern Pacific Railway who recognized her potential for success, she brought the kiwifruit to the U.S., earning international acclaim and, of course, the nickname, the “Queen of Kiwi.” It was the first commercial fruit to be introduced to the U.S. since the banana in the late 1800s, according to the film about Caplan.
Kiwis, round, brown, hairy oblong fruits, were originally known as yang tao or Chinese gooseberries. A buyer from Safeway grocery stores asked Caplan to find them after a customer who had eaten them on a trip to New Zealand came in looking for them. Caplan searched and searched with no luck. Then, a couple of months later, a broker nonchalantly strolled into the market, right across her path, with a box of the weird, fleshy fruit. Once again, opportunity came to Caplan. All she had to do was be in the right place at the right time and she was.
With the hardy vine perennial found, next up came fixing its funky name. “A broker in San Francisco said, ‘You’ll never be able to sell something called Chinese gooseberries. It’s just not attractive. Since it’s from New Zealand and it looks just like the kiwi bird, why don’t you suggest to growers in New Zealand that they rename it Kiwifruit?’” So she did, and they did and she wisely trademarked the name. Then she convinced California farmers to grow the fuzzy fruit.
Her next hurdle: Cajoling grocery chain buyers into buying it, another challenge Caplan was game for. To sweeten the stakes, she called a local restaurant and asked if they’d be willing to bake her a bunch of tarts showcasing this “new, pretty thing called kiwifruit.” She supplied the kiwi and, with it, the bakers whipped up delicate, delicious kiwifruit-laden pastries.
“That’s how I started hooking them into trying it, the retailers, the buyers. I brought them beautiful little kiwi tarts, like the ones you see everywhere today, but they were the first. That’s what you have to do. You have to get the buyers, the person making the buying decision to put it into the chain. Otherwise it never makes it to the consumer.”
She later pulled off similarly brilliant marketing feats with dozens of other unconventional foods, like passionfruit, spaghetti squash, starfruit, rambutan, tamarind, cherimoya and sunchokes, the last of which Julia Child personally asked her to look into making less “ rooty toot toot”-y (gas-inducing), or so the story goes.
Not all of Frieda’s Inc.’s food introductions went over as well as the now ubiquitous, much beloved kiwifruit. “There’s no guarantee and, believe me, I’ve had a couple of bombs,” she admits, laughing heartily. She’s referring to flops like Norfolk Island star pine trees from Hawaii, which suffered an infestation that no one detected until it was too late. “And, goodness, you can’t sell them a day after Christmas.” Then there were the fruit-flavored fortune cookies “that only dogs in Dallas wanted.” “Oh, and the colored walnuts out of Chicago that nobody went for. I mean, we tried, but now we’re a little more cautious.”
Business is still mushrooming
Today, clad in a sleeveless purple knit top and black slacks, the grandmother of seven sits tall in a matching purple padded chair behind a big desk in her private corner office at Frieda’s Inc., located in Los Alamitos, Calif.
Purple happens to be the hallmark hue of the company’s logo and signature packaging labels. “And it’s not because I’m a woman or because it’s my favorite color,” clarifies Caplan, who still reports to the office five days a week without fail, despite slightly slowed mobility. “Purple and black were the only two colors the painter had on hand when my first signs were painted,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s certainly distinctive,’ so it stuck.”
From the very beginning, the calming color purple permeated Frieda’s beyond branding and it still does, evolving into the code for misfits foods that needed fitting. Farmers who grew oddball purple produce specially sought out Caplan, who earned an international reputation as the go-to person for helping growers of exotics break through. “We became known for it. That’s how we introduced purple pepinos, purple potatoes, purple artichokes, purple champagne grapes, because purple means Frieda’s in the industry. It works.”
Over the decades, Caplan’s one-woman show mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar operation, outgrowing two local locations along the way. The business has been owned by Caplan’s daughters, president and CEO Karen Caplan, 59 (a barrier breaker in her own right), and vice president and COO Jackie Caplan Wiggins, 56, since 1990. Under their direction, the company moved from downtown Los Angeles into the Orange County 81,000-square-foot administrative and warehouse facility it’s in today.
Caplan refers to her daughters as her “secret weapons.” She says handing the reigns over to her eldest daughter, Karen, “the mother hen in the bunch,” in 1986 was the best business decision she’s ever made. After she took over, the business’s profits doubled in less than five years.
“Karen doesn’t like it when I tell this,” Caplan says, “but one of the reasons I needed her, beside her skills, when she said she wanted to be president, I was so grateful because I couldn’t stand to fire people. I was worried about their families. So I knew I did not have the proper skills to really run the business, not nearly as well as she does with her sister.”
Caplan’s younger daughter, Jackie, who like her sister, started stuffing envelopes at Frieda’s at the age of 10 and worked summers there as a teen, is also doing her part to uphold the family mission to broaden American’s palate, to get people to “eat one fruit a day that scares you.” When she’s not busy at headquarters, Jackie travels the world with the company’s forager, Mary Arranga Landis. Together, they search for the next big (and sustainable) innovation in produce amongst the roughly 20,000 to 80,000 edible crops still out there, yet to be discovered.
Both Jackie and Karen say the biggest lessons in business that her mom taught them, not necessarily by telling but showing, is that gender is irrelevant and that everyone -- no matter their station in life or their relationship to your bottom line -- is worthy of respect and kindness.
“It didn’t matter if you’re man or a woman,” Jackie says. “You worked hard and you proved yourself as a person. It’s as simple as that.”
Being a kind person, someone with compassion for all people, that’s what drove the business to where it is today, Karen says. “With Mom, it was all about the people and it still is. The farmer came and he was really nice. And he had a family and people he loved who he had to support. And he grew this product. Quince or cactus or whatever. It didn’t matter. Mom fell in love with the person behind the product, not the fruits and vegetables. She made a very real connection with people, she made them feel special and she had to help them succeed.”
To this day, you can look for the telltale purple label and you’ll find the fruits of Frieda’s Inc.’s connections -- up to 500 to 600 different kinds of fresh produce and specialty gourmet items at any given time -- at big box retailers and grocers like Wal-Mart, Vons, Ralph’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and hundreds of others. The family company Caplan bootstrapped more than half a century ago, which now employs some 75 full-time employees and a handful of telecommuting contractors, also exports to grocers and foodservice suppliers in Canada, Mexico, England, Asia and elsewhere across the world.
Major grocery store produce displays and restaurants of all sizes aren’t the only spots you’ll see Frieda’s specialty eats. You might recognize the horned melon, or kiwano fruit, on reruns or downloads of the 1990s TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which purchased the cucumber-melon flavored spiky sphere from Frieda’s as a spacy representation of the food of the future. Or, if you tune in to an episode of Chopped on the Food Network, you might glimpse a bright crimson dragon fruit (pitaya), emerald green kiwifruit or some other fun, colorful fruit supplied by Frieda’s, says Alex Jackson, Caplan’s granddaughter.
Jackson, 25, followed in her mom Karen’s footsteps and joined the family business after graduating college and on the heels of successful stints in produce marketing in Texas and in Australia. She’s now Frieda’s marketing program manager and the “natural born leader” Frieda says she sees taking over the whole operation one day. Alex’s 21-year-old cousin Rachel, Jackie’s daughter, is interning at Frieda’s this summer.
“We grew up in a family where it wasn’t weird for a woman to work hard and to be gone every day until late in the evening,” Jackson says. “That’s the part of the legacy that I’m really grateful for from these role models -- my mom, my aunt, my grandma -- they showed me that there aren’t any obstacles. There are only opportunities. You can do what you love and do it as a family and be incredibly successful at it, and you can raise kids while doing it, too.”
As for the matriarch of the family, the reigning chairman of the board at Frieda’s Inc., she’s as active as ever, reporting to the office to spot industry trends in the trade press, sign checks and manually file invoices. In her off hours, she mentors area residents, teens and adults, and promotes nonprofits that benefit area underprivileged school children. Her longtime, active support for organizations like Planned Parenthood, Women Against Gun Violence, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center also keep her quite occupied.
This coming August, Caplan will celebrate her 92nd birthday with her many friends and loved ones, either on the 8th or the 10th. It’s anyone’s guess. Her parents couldn’t remember exactly which day the spunky brunette was born on. Though her birth certificate says Aug. 8, 1923, she’s still not sure.
As for the future, she can’t see herself slowing down anytime soon. “I have no plans to retire,” she says, sliding her glasses on and glancing at her packed planner to see where her daughter Jackie is headed with the forager next. “I’m not like Karen. I don’t have a bucket list. I’m not like Jackie, who’s having a field day traveling all over the world right now for us. I don’t look back and I don’t plan far ahead. I’m focused on the now, the opportunities still unfolding before me. There are so many and I’m having so much fun. What next?”