I have so many reasons to be grateful for Frieda Rapoport Caplan — and all of them are in my kitchen. For starters, there are ripe, juicy mangoes and wonderfully sour Meyer lemons. There are salsa-perfect habaneros and, perhaps best of all, kiwis, those the tangy and sweet treats I love to scoop out of its soft furry shell like ice cream. (Though apparently you can eat kiwi peel! Who knew?!?)
Caplan, who died over weekend at age 96, was known as “the “Mick Jagger of the produce world.” This fierce Jewish bubbe, who was born in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1923, was instrumental in bringing exotic and delicious produce to the U.S. She made them household items with the help of ingenious marketing: She included recipes and cooking instructions with the unfamiliar fruit and vegetables to help hesitant consumers.
And it worked! We can thank Caplan for so many of the things we consider staples of a modern supermarket: jicama, papaya, snap peas, and so much more.
It all started when Caplan, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, had her first daughter, Karen. Before her pregnancy, Caplan, a UCLA graduate, worked as a production manager in a nylon thread factory. But as a new mom, she wanted to keep working and nursing and needed something with more flexible hours.
She got a job working as a bookkeeper at a produce store owned by her husband’s aunt and uncle. And while she knew nothing about produce (and, in fact, got a D in math at school) she soon fell in love with the business.
Mushrooms were the first specialty product she helped to sell. A few years later, in 1962, she started a business selling unusual produce. It was a niche where she felt that she, as a woman, could carve for herself:“I couldn’t compete with all the boys on the big items … so I built the business selling things that were different,” she Pasadena Star-News in 2003.
Caplan became the first woman to launch, own, and operate a wholesale business. Mazel tov!
Frieda’s Specialty Produce is now a huge company, run out of an 81,000-square-foot warehouse in Los Alamitos. It made $50 million in 2018 and had 75 full-time and 110 part-time employees. It is known for its trademark purple color; according to the Los Angeles Times, “at the time of her business launch, it was the only hue the sign maker she hired had on hand.”
“My mom really was the first woman in a man’s world,” her daughter, Karen, who now runs the company, says in the documentary Fear No Fruit. Caplan worked from 1 AM to 5 PM most days, while her husband, Alfred Hale Caplan, a labor relations consultant and president of the local International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, worked from home to care for their two daughters.
“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,'” Caplan told Entrepreneur magazine in 2015. “That’s how it started. And they just kept coming. Opportunity knocked and it never stopped.”
Caplan big break happened with a fruit known as Chinese gooseberry. After a shopper inquired about the fruit — having tasted it in New Zealand — Frieda started searching for it. But the fruit, with an ugly brown, fuzzy exterior, proved to be a tough sell for customers. A custom broker suggested: “Since it’s from New Zealand and it looks just like the kiwi bird, why don’t you suggest to the brokers in New Zealand that they rename it kiwifruit,” after the famous local flightless bird.
The new name caught on, and so did the fruit — with the help of some local chefs who made beautiful pastries to help sell it. The media dubbed Caplan “the Kiwi Queen.”
Frieda’s has worked with many of the biggest grocery chains across the countries, from Whole Foods to our beloved Trader Joe’s. If you’ve ever marveled at the texture of spaghetti squash (which, in case you didn’t know, works marvelously in kugel) , you have Caplan to thank for that. All in all, she’s credited with introducing over 200 fruits and vegetables to the U.S. market.
On Frieda’s YouTube page, the legacy of making these delicious and unusual fruits and vegetables accessible to all continues, with fun explainer and recipe videos.
Ultimately, the heart of Frieda’s is love and compassion. “With Mom, it was all about the people and it still is,” Karen Caplan told Entrepreneur. “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.”
And Frieda’s is now a real family business that’s led by women: It is run by her daughters, Karen Caplan (CEO) and Jackie Caplan Wiggins (COO). Caplan’s granddaughter, Alex Jackson, works as a sales manager.
Caplan kept coming into the office until this past June, when she broke her leg. She never envisioned retiring, she told Entrepreneur. “I’m having so much fun,” she said.
Thank you, Frieda Rapoport Caplan, for bringing so much fun, color, and healthy deliciousness into our lives and kitchens. May your memory be a blessing.
Image via Frieda Inc. Instagram