Food Arts presents the April 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Frieda Caplan, founder and chairman of Frieda's (originally called Frieda's Finest), the pioneering Los Angeles-based specialty produce company.
Before Frieda, bananas were about the most exotic specialty produce around. Before Frieda, produce was generic, not branded. Before Frieda, produce was sold, not marketed with recipe tags. Before Frieda, most mushrooms were sold canned, ginger came dried, the kiwi was called the Chinese gooseberry, and the sunchoke was known as the Jerusalem artichoke. Before Frieda, the produce biz was a man's world.
The Queen of Kiwi gave the furry brown Chinese gooseberry a marketing make-over and turned it into a culinary star. Armed with its catchy new name (after New Zealanders) and a batch of tarts baked by a local restaurant, Caplan courted food editors and produce buyers. She even persuaded California farmers to grow it and launched a major agricultural industry. But, she says, "it wasn't until Wolfgang Puck and all the young chefs started using it that the kiwi explosion really happened in the United States. We call it our 18-year overnight success story."
Caplan fell into the produce business in 1956 when she took on bookkeeping duties for a relative's company while looking for a job that would allow her to breast-feed her daughter, Karen. When the owners went on vacation, the fledgling vegetable visionary started persuading produce buyers to purchase fresh mushrooms, a specialty at the time. Her success soon led to sales, then to her own company.
Frieda quickly developed a reputation as someone who handled unusual agricultural commodities. "I began to grow a business by cast-offs," says Caplan, who looked unflinchingly at jícama, black radishes, and passion fruit and saw opportunity where others saw ugly ducklings.
Since she started her own business in 1962, Caplan has introduced and popularized radichio, sugar snap peas, pearl onions, blood oranges, spaghetti squash, alfalfa sprouts, doughnut peaches, and cactus pears. "My idea was that if people knew what to do with unusual produce, they would buy it," she explains. Her $23 million company now handles more than 300 items.
At 70, Caplan is doing what she does best—being the idea person. Her two daughters, Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, are president/CEO, and vice president, respectively. The sales force is entirely female.
"Frieda's innovative marketing methods made the uncommon accessible," says produce authority Elizabeth Schneider. "Viva Frieda and her fabulous female flock!"