It’s 1962. You’re a woman — the only woman — working in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, a frenzied hive of testosterone-fueled buying and selling of tomatoes, lettuce and onions operating in predawn downtown darkness. You’re presented with a fuzzy brown fruit from New Zealand called a Chinese gooseberry. In fact, not just one of them, but 200 cases of them.
How do you sell a fruit that Americans have never tasted, let alone heard of — not to mention the first commercial fruit being introduced to the United States since the banana in the 1880s? If you’re Frieda Caplan, you call the growers in New Zealand and say, “We need to change the name of this fruit. How about ‘kiwifruit’?” Then you ask a pastry chef friend to slice some of this bright green fruit on the top of a custard tart so that you can convince supermarket produce buyers to just give it a taste.
“The kiwifruit was so unique looking, and retailers were always looking for ways to stand out from their competition,” Caplan recalls. “I worked with the buyer of Alpha Beta Markets in the beginning, and they offered kiwifruit for 10 cents each all summer long. They didn’t make money, I didn’t make money, but it allowed them to make a statement to their shoppers.”
At Frieda’s Specialty Produce, they jokingly refer to kiwifruit as their “18-year overnight success,” because that’s about how long it took for the odd-looking fruit to take off and become a common ingredient in smoothies, fruit bowls and desserts across the country. They think it was worth the wait.
“Can you even imagine a world now without kiwifruit?” says Karen Caplan, Frieda’s daughter, now president and chief executive of the family business.
At 96, Frieda no longer goes into the office every day but still works from home, while Karen and Frieda’s other daughter, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jackie Caplan Wiggins, run the daily operations, shipping a host of produce to grocery stores across the country. Alex Berkley, Karen’s daughter, joined the company in 2011, the third generation of women in the family to devote her life to bringing “exotic” fruits and vegetables to the American table. In recent years, the focus has been on jackfruit, Meyer lemons and shishito peppers, a few of the 400 products championed by Frieda’s, where they have been not just ahead of the trends, but actually setting them, for 57 years.
Clad in high heels and a pencil skirt, Frieda Caplan was already an anomaly in the male-dominated produce wholesale markets of the 1950s, a job that came about simply because she needed to find part-time work while she was still breast-feeding her infant daughter Karen; the odd hours of the industry, with much of the work starting in the wee hours of the morning, provided the flexibility she wanted.
Eventually, Caplan struck out on her own, building a thriving business where other women could come get a job: “No one hired women in sales back then,” she says in a phone interview. When she was later honored with the “Produce Man of the Year” award in 1979 by the Packer, a produce industry publication, she simply handed it back.
“I was so surprised when they called out my name as the awardee,” Caplan says, “but I was a woman! How could they call it Produce Man of the Year?” She was happy to accept the award later when it was renamed Produce Marketer of the Year.
The recognition was well-deserved. It was Caplan’s innate talent as an enthusiastic storyteller that made all the difference with harried supermarket produce buyers in search of stock.
“Frieda endeared herself to the produce industry at large by telling a story with each item, and that has become their company’s trademark,” says Richard McKellogg, director of produce merchandising for Lowes Foods in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Shoppers are maneuvering the aisles with hundreds of choices. Frieda’s tells the story and provides the information to the retailers with a level of detail and knowledge that I could never personally keep up with myself. They took uncommon items — spaghetti squash, sugar snap peas — and made them common.”
Sometimes it was as simple as slapping a sticker onto that spaghetti squash that explained how to cook it, a surprisingly revolutionary idea at the time. If you’ve ever wondered why you often find wonton wrappers, tofu and bok choy grouped together in the produce department, that’s a result of a retailer who asked Frieda to come up with a way to showcase fresh Asian vegetables as part of a complete meal.
When food writer Marian Burros called Frieda in 1979 to find out what was new on the horizon, Burros ended up writing a story for The Washington Post about an exciting new cross between the English pea and snow pea: the sugar snap pea.
“People are calling it the greatest new vegetable in 50 years,” wrote Burros, “and the first shipment is scheduled to arrive in Washington before the weekend.”
“This article comes out about this new vegetable,” Karen recalls, “and suddenly everyone’s showing up at the A&P grocery store clamoring for it. The buyer called my mom and said, ‘Frieda, why didn’t you tell me?’ Of course, my mom knew from the moment she ate her first sugar snap pea that they were going to be the next big thing, she just needed to get the retailers to buy in. But today, everything has shifted in terms of consumer demand, and a retailer would never think of not having something in stock that was being written about in the press.”
While Frieda’s might be known as a trendsetter, the company has learned that trendiness isn’t enough. In the produce industry, a long shelf life is critical to success, too. (One hard lesson: Pre-peeled kiwifruit is not a good idea.) It’s not surprising the lengthy list of Frieda’s products, from jicama to sunchokes to the kiwifruit that started it all, includes items that can be stored well for weeks or months at a time, helping to protect the bottom line.
“Selling something perishable is pretty terrifying,” says Berkley, the company’s sales manager. “What motivates us is making a difference every day in how people eat.”
That motivation spurred Frieda’s to partner with A.V. Thomas Produce when the California family farm acquired the patent for the Stokes purple sweet potato in 2012. Knowing Frieda’s company color was purple — a result of a sign painter creating a more “feminine” sign for the company back when it was still housed at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market — the farm’s retail sales specialist, Jeremy Fookes, reached out to see if Frieda’s might be interested in getting their colorful, and highly nutritious, potato out to retailers.
“It was one phone call, we set up a meeting, they tested it out in the kitchen and fell in love with it,” Fookes says. “They came up with a great marketing concept, ‘Power Up With Purple,’ and we went from a few acres to 500 acres in just a few years.” After developing some 34 recipes for the Stokes variety, including a pretty stunning deep purple sweet potato pie dolloped with maple whipped cream, it’s fair to say that Frieda’s is a fan.
“Quality and flavor are super important to us,” Karen says. “My mom doesn’t cook, but she knows what tastes good. Back in the really early days, when I used to help out in the office, we’d get 300 or 400 letters a week from people asking for recipes. That’s when I started cooking, so we could send something back to them.” Recipe development is now a key part of Frieda’s marketing.
For Southern Californians shopping at Ralph’s, those recipes are on full display at the annual Hatch chile grilling events staged at stores throughout the chain each August. The zesty chile, which grows in a valley near Hatch, N.M., has a short growing season that has made it prized among pepper connoisseurs; Frieda’s recipes include a sizzling Hatch and chicken fajita, a vegan Hatch queso dip, and even a Hatch-infused margarita.
“People line up to get their Hatch chiles,” says Brian Balladares, Ralph’s division produce floral merchandiser, “and, of course, we love to have customers excited about it. But, even more than that, Frieda’s hosts a kickoff meeting with all of our produce associates to educate them and provide samples so they can get excited about it. Getting the buy-in from our associates is the most important part, and that’s what they understand at Frieda’s. We have to love the product as much as they do if we’re going to sell it to our customers.”
Indeed, it’s all about loving the product, because, Karen says, “Anything could be the next kiwi.”
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