Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: Frieda Caplan

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Frieda Caplan of Frieda’s Specialty Inc.
1923—2020.

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Feisty, ingenious, and trailblazing, Frieda Caplan broke glass ceilings and raised the specialty produce category to a towering stature. She delighted in surprising and exciting U.S. retailers, foodservice operators and consumers by introducing and cajoling them to partake in unfamiliar imported gems from around the world — most famously Chinese gooseberries, which she first air-shipped from New Zealand in 1964, and cleverly re-branded as kiwifruit, a sign of her marketing savvy. She figured the name kiwis (the native flightless bird, a nickname for New Zealanders, and a unit of currency) would be a better sell to customers wary of the fuzzy edible novelty.

Admittedly, it took a while for Americans’ kinship with kiwis to catch on. She once said, “I like to call it our 18-year overnight success.” At that time, she couldn’t fathom her procession of fresh foreign finds would become American staples, nor her transformative role in the category’s proliferation and mainstream ubiquity.

“We all know the history that my mom was the first woman to own, operate and found a produce wholesale company in the United States,” says Karen Caplan, president/CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce. That was in 1962 in a male-dominated world and male-dominated produce industry that would remain so for decades. Case in point, “The Packer used to give out its Produce Man of the Year Award,” says Caplan. “In 1979, Bill Coon, its publisher from 1972-1996, calls my mom up to the stage at the PMA convention, and she hands him back the award. ‘I’m not a man. Can you correct that?’ They didn’t write Produce Woman of the Year, but from then on it, became Produce Marketer of the Year.”

“Back in the day, trade shows were small, but our booth really stood out. There was no one else displaying eye-catching exotic fruits and vegetables at the trade shows in the 80’s,” says Caplan, who was astonished at the dearth of women in the produce industry, and had a newfound appreciation for her mother’s groundbreaking achievements. “Thirty-five years ago, the companies didn’t even think of women for sales. They just weren’t hiring women for executive positions. Anytime in Southern California a woman wanted to get into sales they were told, ‘Oh, you should apply at Frieda’s!’”

Frieda Caplan also mentored buyers. “Dick Spezzano was an early customer. The way he tells the story is when he became a buyer at Vons and my mom took him under her wing on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. She would steer him, ‘Oh, be careful of that vendor,’ or ‘That’s a really good company to do business with.’ They developed this professional relationship,” Caplan continues. “We were the only company that was focused in specialties, and he was very committed probably from his experience working with my mom, and for the great consumer following that the brand has always had, even to this day.”

That purple heart logo on the produce package stood out from the crowd in the grocery store, and became an iconic brand association with the company and Frieda as well, who had an affinity for wearing purple, the color she used in her original signage to launch her company. According to Spezzano, who is also a Vanguard recipient and is now a consultant, Frieda was quick to understand the value of including recipes, preparation and cooking instructions to inspire and sway hesitant consumers unacquainted with these different items. But there were deeper problems at retail, says Spezzano.

“Dick Spezzano was well aware of the challenges Vons was having at the front end when Frieda’s specialty items were being rung up as lower-priced commodities,” says Caplan. At the forefront for the advent of PLUs, UPCs and differentiated packaging, “Dick recognized the problem which was front-end checkout error, and it spurred an educational opportunity. We were already labeling and packaging a lot of our other products in bags and trays, but this was a further push to identify individual loose products, and a way to educate the consumer and the produce manager…Oh, that’s a passion fruit, and we added a phrase that would make it clear, ‘passion fruit, ripe when wrinkled.’ Then we added the country of origin,” and with Frieda’s, that required a lot of distinctive labeling.

Caplan built a regional retail fan base. These produce executives and early adopters were enthralled by Frieda’s unusual specialty items, seeing them as a means to de-commoditize the produce department, create striking merchandising displays, and differentiate from their competitors. Bob DiPiazza, another Vanguard recipient, who was group vice president of perishables at Dominick’s in Chicago, says he got some resistance when he decided to bring in the kiwis from Frieda’s: some of the store managers didn’t know what they were.

“Dick Spezanno at Vons in Southern California, Harold Alston at Stop & Shop in Boston, Ed Odron at Lucky Store’s Northern California division, and I would have these contests,” says DiPiazza. “We decided to have a kiwi challenge — who could sell the most kiwis on a per $1,000 of produce sales. This was back in the early 90’s when kiwis were nowhere what they are today in terms of consumption. So, I put nice-size kiwis out for 10 cents each, and we just sold truckloads of them. I remember people would walk up to the display and say, ‘What is that?” And someone else would say, ‘That’s a kiwi, and for 10 cents, I’m buying it!’ ”

“Harold Alston won the first kiwi contest, and I was embarrassed,” says Spezzano. “He had a sign ‘Spezzano kiwis’ in the Natick store where my mom shopped! The next time we decided to win big time. We actually had back-to-back ads at 20 for $1. We ran out of kiwis from the West Coast and were bringing them in from Philly.”

“The whole idea was who could sell the most, not who could make the most money, but those were the good old days, where they could have fun doing a contest, the growers sold a lot of product and consumers got to try a new produce item,” says Caplan.

“A regional guy could work that way,” says Spezzano. “We had full autonomy in buying and selling, and we could make that commitment.”

With foresight and experience honed from her gritty days at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, Caplan defied industry norms and gravitated toward risk-takers, seeking and cementing collaborations early on with progressive retailers — produce department leaders willing to test, promote, and fill their shelves with what were considered niche, exotic oddities: from New Zealand’s kiwis and horned melons; to baby pineapples from South Africa; Asian enoki and shitake mushrooms, shishito peppers, alfalfa sprouts, spaghetti squash, star fruit, and Donut peaches, and the list goes on and on.

Caplan tantalized the American appetite, generating new taste and flavor profiles, opening the floodgates to reimagined sales and profit opportunities at produce departments and restaurants throughout the U.S., and bolstering produce consumption. Caplan seized on the increasingly diverse ethnic demographic, and a more-traveled, worldly consumer base, and she channeled health and wellness trends. She turned niche, offbeat items cool and popular, building intrigue and interest for purchasing and consuming fresh produce.

Caplan became quite a celebrity in her own right. The Times in 1990 listed Caplan as one of a dozen Californians, including Steve Jobs and Jane Fonda, who shaped American businesses in the 1980’s. The American premier in 2015 of Fear No Fruit, a captivating documentary, showcased Caplan, emanating her indominable energy at age 91. It received significant press, expounded with the European premier hosted by The London Produce Show and Conference. The attention she garnered from within the trade, but also through consumer media, was emblematic of the powerful influence she’s had over decades in waking up and transforming American palates with produce specialties from across the globe.

Caplan’s tenacity served her well. In a man’s world, she was triumphant, an industry vanguard and venerated leader powering the industry forward throughout her lifetime. The industry mourned her passing at 96 in January 2020. Karen Caplan endearingly embraces her mother’s invaluable words of advice and wisdom, carrying on the legacy of her mother with her sister Jackie Caplan Wiggins, COO, and the next generation on board, with Karen’s daughter Alex Berkley, who is sales manager, a position oncerarely afforded to a woman in the produce industry, unless you worked at Frieda’s.