Frieda Caplan made her mark in produce by selling exotic fruits and vegetables… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)
The gig: Produce maven Frieda Caplan, 89, is a pioneer not only because she was the first female wholesaler in the field, but also because she introduced numerous fruits and vegetables to U.S. consumers.
Her company, Frieda's Inc., founded 50 years ago, now sources produce to more than 200 retail grocery chains in all 50 states, as well as to restaurant buyers.
The business is now run by daughters Karen Caplan, 56, and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, 54, but their mom is still involved.
Mushrooming sales: Frieda Caplan got her start at the downtown Los Angeles produce market, doing the books upstairs at a produce outfit managed by her aunt and uncle. One fall near Thanksgiving in the late 1950s, her relatives went out of town and asked her to cover sales downstairs.
While in charge, Caplan had the company listed on an ad for mushrooms. McDaniel's Markets, a local chain, made a huge order.
"I had absolutely no idea how to get that much," Caplan said.
None of the usual suppliers her aunt and uncle used could help. So she packed baby Karen into the family station wagon and drove to Ocean View Mushroom Farm in Orange County.
"They were so impressed that I was that tenacious," Caplan said. They sold her about 500 pounds of mushrooms that day. When her relatives returned, she asked if she could continue working in sales, and they agreed.
"I never went back upstairs," Caplan said.
Planting new roots: Soon Caplan was known as "the mushroom queen," and in 1961 the market landlords approached her with a business proposition. A new space was opening in the warehouse next door and the owners wanted her to start her own business in it.
They told her, "We have been watching you for the last two years and we think you will be very successful," Caplan said.
Though she protested that she didn't have the funds or know-how to get started, Caplan took the deal and got a loan from her father. Farmers advanced her mushrooms and took payment as Caplan sold them to retailers.
Kiwi's debut: Caplan quickly defined her business by accepting then-strange produce that other businesses wouldn't take.
Her big moment came when one of her buyers from a Safeway supermarket asked if she carried Chinese gooseberry. She said no, but two months later a broker happened to walk through the market with a box of the stuff.
Other wholesalers in the market said, "We don't want it, go see Frieda," Caplan remembered. She snapped up the fruit, grown in New Zealand, which eventually became known in the U.S. as kiwi.
Only woman in the room: With her company's growth, Caplan became nationally known as a successful businesswoman in a man's industry.
Once, Caplan was at a convention in San Antonio and the trade group's president greeted the room by saying, "Good morning gentlemen. And Frieda," Caplan recalled.
"The wives were out on tours," Caplan said. "I was the only woman in the room."
In 1977, Caplan brought her daughter Karen into the business and soon put her in charge of marketing. The younger Caplan formed relationships with influential people in the food world to help find the next new fruits and vegetables.
"A lot of our new leads came from food editors," the elder Caplan said.
Fruits of their labor: Karen Caplan took over the business as president in 1986, and Jackie Caplan Wiggins is currently the chief operating officer. Karen's youngest daughter, Alex Jackson, 22, recently joined to do marketing.
With three generations in the company, the women have learned to balance professional disagreements with their personal relationships. That means being honest with one another and not coddling the grandchildren, many of whom have interned over summers with the company.
"We play no favorites when they work for us," Frieda Caplan said. "They better come on time."