Frieda Caplan keeps track of her business relationships like this: with a big box of index cards on her desk. Each card has the name of a contact and a list of dates marking communications. It’s an old-school method, but then again, Frieda is 91 years old.
The relationships with farmers, universities, trade groups and food writers, built over decades, document how Caplan has built her niche business from a foothold in the Los Angeles wholesale produce market in the early 1960s to Frieda’s Inc., a Los Alamitos company with 75 employees.
For Los Angeles-based filmmaker Mark Brian Smith, Frieda is a “Who knew?” story. “A lot of people don’t know who Frieda Caplan is or was.”
Which is why Smith made a documentary about her. “Fear No Fruit” screens at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival.
Though Frieda has been written about in newspapers and national magazines over decades and even once appeared on Letterman, few may know Frieda’s Inc. is why kiwis are now commonplace in grocery stores. And jicama. And packaged tofu. And guavas, sugar snap peas, bean sprouts and Shiitake mushrooms.
The growth of her company was gradual. “For about 30 years, I slept four hours a night and ate the morning doughnut. It’s taken me all these years to get back to a fighting weight!” she joked recently. But, she added, “The opportunity to introduce people to new fruits and vegetables was very exciting.”
When she started her business, then called Produce Specialties Inc., Frieda was a bit of an oddity as the only woman selling produce at the Los Angeles wholesale produce market. At the time, the typical grocery store produce section had about 60 standard items, such as lettuce, tomatoes, oranges and apples. Frieda carved out a spot for herself, and as a result, introduced into U.S. grocery stores about 200 fruits and vegetables then considered exotic.
Now, daughters Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan Wiggins lead the company as CEO and COO. But Frieda still signs all the checks to the farmers and inspects every invoice.
Frieda grew up in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her memories from that time are of playing jacks on the front porch and taking walks with her dad when he returned from work as a pattern cutter for women’s clothes. She started college at UCLA the same year World War II began and graduated when it ended. On campus, she organized campaigns for student body president, the first sign of her gift for marketing.
“I’ve just naturally always operated from taking advantage of any opportunity that showed itself, wherever I was.”
MUSHROOMS TO KIWI
The path to Frieda’s Inc. began with mushrooms.
She was working as a bookkeeper for her husband’s aunt and uncle, who managed an operation in the Los Angeles wholesale produce market. Once, she filled in as cashier when her husband’s relatives went on vacation. Some fresh mushrooms, then not a commonplace item, sat to one side, and Frieda tried to sell them to buyers coming through. One man agreed to take them, but he placed an order so big it sent Frieda into a panic. She called several growers, only to find out mushrooms were sold out, this being Thanksgiving time.
She headed to a mushroom grower in Huntington Beach. Employees were packaging mushrooms, but they told her they had sold out, too. So Frieda pitched in, packaging mushrooms alongside the workers. They eventually gave her what she came for. Over time, at the produce market, her husband’s relatives let her do more sales, and her marketing prowess began to show.
“Eventually, I made them so much money with what I was doing that they let me work fulltime downstairs” in sales, she said. After a few years, a manager for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which ran the wholesale market, asked her to start her own operation at the market.
“At that time, on the produce market, the other people on the market were only interested in high-volume items,” Frieda said. “Small farmers had no place to go. Nobody was interested. So I started listening to all these small farmers that came on the market.”
Her name became familiar. When someone selling rare items like shallots or alfalfa spouts came through, produce sellers would say, “‘Go see Frieda. She handles odd things.’ That’s how my business was developed.”
As for the company’s signature color – purple – the signpainter had only purple and black paint for Frieda’s first business signs. Now the company has introduced purple potatoes, purple pepinos and champagne grapes.
She also became known for hiring women.
“If a woman wanted a job in L.A. with a produce company, they would always say, ‘Go to Frieda’s. She’s the only one that hires women salespeople.’ So we had an opportunity of becoming mentors to a lot of women who are now leaders in the industry.”
That includes Karen, who was the first chairwoman of the United Fresh Produce Association trade group. One of her first jobs was to answer the hundreds of letters that came in each week at Frieda’s Inc., well before email.
Eventually, Frieda and Karen moved the business to a former Ralph’s warehouse, then to its current location in Los Alamitos when they ran out of space.
Frieda’s granddaughter, Alex Jackson, works in the sales department. She’s become the company’s top salesperson in less than six months on the job, her grandmother boasted.
“There’s a legacy here, and we have a great reputation,” Alex said. “I realized how special it is to work with your family.”
“This is our future,” Frieda said.
One Illinois grocery seller had a problem. The Jerusalem artichokes Frieda was sending the company were shrinking from dehydration. So Frieda and Karen came up with packaging and renamed the food “sunchokes.”
It was perhaps the first packaging for produce, Frieda said. “We got literally laughed out of the local industry. … Well, the first two months after (the grocery seller) got it, our sales went up 600 percent on the package.”
Frieda’s Inc. also put country of origin labels on their food before it was required by law, taking advantage of an increased interest in international foods as more Americans traveled overseas. One of Frieda’s marketing campaigns was to group Asian vegetables together in the produce section next to packaged wonton and egg roll wrappers, suggesting an all-in-one meal for housewives.
Despite her influence on the produce industry, Frieda didn’t see herself as the subject of a documentary, Smith said.
“Frieda is so humble. She doesn’t look at herself that way,” he said.
“Fear No Fruit” was a marketing slogan for the company, aimed at getting grocery store produce buyers to try the exotic and sometimes scary-looking produce from Frieda’s company. But there’s a dual meaning, Smith said.
“Frieda herself feared nothing,” he said. “She saw no obstacles. She kept an open mind.”
‘Fear No Fruit’ trailer