088: The Fruits of Her Labor

In This Episode: It’s said women and minorities have to work a lot harder to compete in business, and I believe it. But how might they actually do that? Well, they apply Uncommon Sense — and we can all learn from a good example.

088: The Fruits of Her Labor

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Show Notes

  • Help support Uncommon Sense: — yes, $5 helps!
  • Photos are below, in the transcript.
  • Frieda’s web site.

Transcript

Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

Just a quick note before I tell the story: this is the first episode in awhile — the first one this year, even! — because I was working on a big project that I started in August. Sorry for the silence, and I’ll be revealing what the project is in upcoming newsletters.

Frieda Rapoport Caplan was determined to break into a business that, especially at the time, was completely male dominated. Caplan didn’t think the way to break in was to try to be like the men.

“I couldn’t compete with all the boys on the big items,” she told a reporter from the Pasadena, California, Star-News in 2003, “so I built the business selling things that were different.”

What was she selling? Produce, to supermarkets. It’s a tough, cutthroat business. But let me tell you how she got there.

Born in Los Angeles to Russian immigrants in 1923, Frieda Rapoport was raised in the same neighborhood my mother was, Highland Park. Mom was born just a short time later. In 1945, Frieda graduated from UCLA with an economics and political science degree. She got a job in a lawyer’s office; he represented the CIO — the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of labor unions whose name lives on today in the union AFL-CIO. In 1951 she married the president of a longshoreman’s union, Alfred Caplan. A few years after that, they had their first child, a daughter, Karen, and a second daughter, Jackie, after that.

Frieda wanted to go back to work, but she had to be selective in choosing a job: she wanted a flexible schedule so she could breast-feed Karen. Her husband’s uncle owned Giumarra Brothers, a seller at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. He hired Caplan as a bookkeeper, even though she didn’t know bookkeeping — or the produce business.

She had to learn fast, because not long after the owner went on vacation, and Caplan had to work the sales floor. It’s the late 50s now, and produce markets looked a lot different than they do today. It was typical for them to have onions, apples, and lettuce, but they probably would only have one variety of each. It wasn’t “give me a case of Fuji apples and a case of Braeburns,” it was “give me two cases of apples” and they took what was available, and they probably had never heard of Fujis or Breaburns. They likely wouldn’t even know what “sweet onions” were — they were just onions: did you want some or not?

Giumarra Brothers did have one thing that was a bit unusual: portabello mushrooms. Normally at the market it was the little white button mushrooms or nothing, so Caplan thought she’d try to sell them, since no one was coming to her to buy them; the produce sellers considered portabellos “exotic,” even though all portabellos are is the fully grown version of the immature white button mushrooms! Imagine if they saw oyster mushrooms! Or, heck, even shiitakes. She finally caught the attention of one buyer who said he’d take some. But uh oh: his 500ish-pound order was far more than Giumarra Brothers had in stock.

Not wanting to lose the sale, Caplan called around to their suppliers, and no one had enough to fill the order. Undaunted, she went to one of the mushroom farms they worked with, and found the employees were picking — yes — portabello mushrooms. She offered to help, and that’s how she was able to get enough to fill the man’s order.

And that experience — selling something just a bit different — set the course for her life. Frieda continued to work the sales floor, learning the business. She especially enjoyed talking with the small farmers at the market, learning about what they grew. Of course, they mostly grew what they knew would sell well to grocery store buyers at the market. But she learned about other things they grew — produce that simply grew really well in their soil, or things that were used in their cultural dishes. Caplan didn’t know about any of that: she didn’t cook!

In 1962 Guimarra Brothers’ next-door neighbor moved out, and she leased the space. By then, Caplan knew the business pretty well, and had figured out how she’d stand out and be different. She was not only the only women in the business in Los Angeles, Entrepreneur magazine later said she was the first woman to “launch, own and operate a wholesale business in the male-dominated U.S. produce industry” — the first one in the country! She opened Frieda’s Specialty Produce on April 2nd, 1962, and the small farmers already knew she was “the go-to distributor for anyone offering something unusual.”

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Frieda busy in her office c2014. (Photo: Fear No Fruit: The Frieda Caplan Documentary, released in 2015, and Available on Amazon *)

“The other people on the market were only interested in high-volume items,” she said later. “Small farmers had no place to go. Nobody was interested. So I started listening to all these small farmers.” Her Uncommon Sense is starting to become quite apparent. Success, she said, “was a matter of finding people who were innovative and progressive and getting them together with people who had something to offer.”

Did she have trouble as the only woman at the wholesale market? “Once they got over the fact that I was a woman and they learned they could make money with the items I was selling,” she said, “I had no problems.”

But she was way ahead of their game.

“We were a meat and potatoes society in the 1960s,” says Ben Faber, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor and an expert on specialty crops. “Who the hell had heard of jicama or spaghetti squash? Frieda was able to tap into aspirations that people had after the Second World War,” he said, “something new and different other than mac ’n’ cheese.”

Early on in Frieda’s business, a buyer from Safeway heard that Frieda’s Produce was the place to go for unusual items, and he had an unusual request. He had recently been in New Zealand, and found a fruit there he really liked. He asked, can she get him Chinese gooseberries? She had never heard of them, but she kept her eyes open, and sure enough a broker walked through the wholesale market later with a box, and she was the only one who wanted them.

But they sure looked unappetizing: “Someone asked her one day, so what does that Chinese gooseberry look like?” remembers her daughter, Karen. “And she said, ‘horse turds’.”

Caplan knew it would be tough to sell Chinese horse turds, so she decided to come up with a new name. The Safeway buyer had discovered them in New Zealand. New Zealanders have been known by an affectionate nickname since World War I, after their native bird, the kiwi. Caplan renamed the gooseberries kiwifruit, and they started selling. It was “the first commercial fruit being introduced to the United States since the banana in the 1880s,” said the Washington Post in a 2019 profile.

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Photo Op: Frieda receives a shipment of kiwi direct from New Zealand in 1964 (Photo: Frieda’s Inc.)

“It was far from an overnight success story,” Frieda said: it took about 18 years before kiwis were easy to find in just about every produce section of American supermarkets. But persistence is another trait of Uncommon Sense.

Her introduction of new varieties didn’t stop with kiwifruit. You can thank Frieda for popularizing mushrooms beyond the plain white button variety, including shiitakes. And mangoes, passion fruit, and starfruit. Blood oranges. Most wholesalers had carrots; she had baby carrots. Everyone had peas, she had sugar snap peas. For every bell pepper she had shishitos and habaneros. Everyone had onions, she had shallots. During the summer when other sellers offered watermelons, she introduced the world to seedless watermelons. If a wholesaler had pears, she had dragon fruit. If they had potatoes she had jicama. You get the idea!

“Our problem in introducing new vegetables has never been the consumer,” she said in the late 70s. “It’s only been with the retailer who is afraid to try anything new.”

Frieda had a fondness for the color purple, so she was gleeful to also introduce purple potatoes and purple sweet potatoes to the market. Maybe by then the retailers weren’t so afraid.

“Frieda endeared herself to the produce industry at large by telling a story with each item, and that has become their company’s trademark,” said North Carolina produce merchandiser Richard McKellogg. “Shoppers are maneuvering the aisles with hundreds of choices,” he continued. “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.”

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Clockwise from upper left: Purple sweet potatoes, jackfruit (about a foot long), kumquats, shishito peppers and, center, dragon fruit (Photos: Friedas Inc.)

She also helped sell produce that most households had never seen by including recipes — even though, still, she never did learn how to cook herself. That was made easier by another of Frieda’s innovations: packaged fruits and vegetables, rather than dumping items into a bulk bin. I’ll put some examples on the Show Page.

I grew up in southern California, and there’s one bit of produce I knew that we often didn’t find in grocery stores. My dad, who was born in New Mexico, liked Mexican food, and now and then he’d take the family to Rusty’s Hacienda in North Hollywood. The tacos there were fantastic, and each had a thick slice of ripe, creamy avocado, no matter what time of year it was.

My dad would buy avocados in the grocery store, but those were horrible. I learned the difference: those were so-called “Florida” avocados — fuertes — which was the only variety most stores had for years. But a guy in southern California named Rudolph Hass had a single tree that grew a different variety of avocado that no one had ever seen — or tasted! — before. That was the rich and creamy variety that Rusty’s used. In 1935 Hass got the first ever U.S. patent on a tree, and every one of the millions of trees that grow Hass avocados today, now the leading variety, are descendants of that first one Hass grew.

And so? “I sold the first pallet of Hass avocados,” Frieda told the Orange County Register, which eventually relegated the flavorless, hard, watery Fuerte to the obscurity it deserved. Still, I had to laugh that even those were called “exotic” by the grocers of the day.

I was also amused to learn that one of Frieda’s customers was another Los Angeles business: Desilu Studios. They needed weird, even alien-looking fruits for a TV show they were making: Star Trek. And, later, Paramount, for Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine.

“There have always been exotic food items,” Caplan said after 10 years in the business. “We just showcased them, dressed them up and sold them.” And here’s a telling quote from the same time: “You gotta hand it to her,” someone told a reporter in 1972. “She made something from nothing. There isn’t a produce man in the market who doesn’t take his hat off to her.” A short time later Frieda was the first woman to receive, from the industry journal The Packer, the “Produce Man of the Year” award — which she refused to accept until they renamed it. They did, to “The Produce Marketer of the Year,” and had a new plaque made.

“Success came,” Frieda said later, “because I never saw obstacles.” That is definitely an Uncommon Sense approach to life, let alone business. Throughout her career she was responsible for introducing more than 200 fruits and vegetables to American supermarkets.

And do I mean American supermarkets, not just those in the Los Angeles area.

When I went to Frieda’s web site I clicked over to their “Where to Buy” page. They opened a map to show where in my rural western Colorado area I could find some of their offerings. Every grocer that I even occasionally go to is their customer: the Safeway, the two Kroger’s, the Walmart, and even the tiny independent Ouray Grocery.

Then I clicked on their Products tab, which showed their most popular items, and a link to see all of their products. That page was headlined, “You’re weird, I like you”! My kind of attitude. As I browsed their offerings I knew most of them, like romanesco, but definitely not all of them, like chayote. And who knew that asparagus, snow peas, and kohlrabi came in purple? Look ’em up if you’re curious: I’ll include a link on the Show Page.

“Her introduction of kiwi made people less risk-averse to try new things,” says Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Agribusiness Department Chair Marianne McGarry Wolf. That university granted Caplan an honorary doctorate.

The Los Angeles Times says that after 56 years in business, Frieda’s Specialty Produce had 75 full-time — and 110 part-time — employees, with sales all over the world exceeding $50 million per year. Frieda still showed up to work every day even though she had turned the business over to her daughters, President and CEO Karen Caplan, who started working in the company when she was 10, moving to full time after earning her degree in Agricultural Economics and Business Management from the University of California, Davis.

Karen followed in her mother’s footsteps by being elected the first female Chair of the United Fresh Produce Association, and the first female President of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council of southern California. And, she notes, she does know how to cook.

The Chief Operating Officer is her younger sister, Jackie Caplan Wiggins, who also went to work at Frieda’s at 10, moving to full time after earning her degree in Business Administration from San Diego State, and then traveling around the world for three years, during which time I’m pretty sure she learned about foods wherever she went. The story of Frieda’s Produce is far from over.

Because when you have Uncommon Sense, you don’t assume you’ll live forever. You set up plans well in advance so what you built can live on. Frieda’s business does, even though Frieda died herself in January 2020, at 96 years old. We all are eating better because of her.

And the company is likely to continue in the family for some time: Karen’s daughter, Alex Berkley, is Frieda’s Inc.’s Director of Sales, after graduating from George Mason University, and was named one of the “40 Under 40” to watch in the business by Produce Business Magazine.

Clearly, Uncommon Sense runs in the family.

The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast88, which has photos of Frieda Caplan and some of her more exotic produce, the link to the company’s web site, and a place to comment.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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2 Comments on “088: The Fruits of Her Labor

  1. I knew that the kiwi was a name attached to the former Chinese gooseberry to get it to sell in the US, but had no idea the whole story behind it. All I can say is: Thank you, thank you, Frieda! I adore a lot of the specialty produce that you can find in almost any store today, and I am so glad that we’ve moved beyond the “one size fits all” type of produce selection! I just didn’t realize that we had one person in particular to thank for so much of it, but clearly she was a woman destined to be successful. I’m just glad she picked such a tasty way to do it!

    But Frieda’s daughters ought to check out the greengrocers in France. There’s a blogger who lives in a small village in Southwestern France who, when not restricted by Covid, would go almost daily to the greengrocer in the next village, and his pictures invariably make me insanely jealous! Five or six varieties of pineapple, or oranges, or tomatoes, or onions, and on and on, from all over the world — a seemingly endless supply of delicious produce that would bring shame to even the best-stocked American store.

    With one exception: the Santa Monica Farmers Market. When I lived in L.A. in the early 90s, my favorite Wednesday morning activity was to graze my way through that farmers market and see what the small specialty growers were producing. Wonderful! That’s where I fell in love with Asian pears, for example, years before I saw them anywhere in American stores.

    So I know we’ve come a long way, thanks to Frieda’s willingness to try something new — but I also know we’ve got a long way to go! (And thanks for making me really hungry, thinking of all the delicious produce out there today!)

    Reply
  2. I subscribe to Premium but don’t often think to check out your page (or podcast), and am very glad I did today. Thank you for Frieda’s wonderful story.

    My parents were foodies in New York, and my mother was a terrific cook. Now I’m wondering whether they somehow encountered Frieda during my father’s sabbatical in the LA area in spring of 1962!

    Reply

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