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

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

Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Karen Caplan
President/CEO
Frieda’s Specialty Produce

Karen Caplan says she didn’t understand how unique her mother, Frieda, was, or that there were so few women in the produce industry until 1977, when Caplan joined Frieda’s Specialty Produce, based in Los Alamitos, CA. The late Frieda Caplan, an iconic trailblazer, made history in 1962 as the first woman in the United States to found, own and operate a wholesale produce company.

It seemed an industry anomaly for Karen Caplan, who earned a degree in agricultural economics and business management from the University of California-Davis, to be working in sales — companies didn’t hire women for sales back then. “It’s so hard to believe there was an industry once that did not have women as equals,” she says now.

In 1986, at age 30, Caplan was promoted to president and chief executive. In 1990, she and her sister, Jackie Caplan Wiggins, purchased the company from their mother.

During her early career, Caplan became immersed in the National Association of Women Business Owners as an officer, and president of the Southern California division. Then, in 1993, she wondered, “Why couldn’t I organize something in the produce industry like what I experienced in the ‘regular’ business world?” And the idea of Women in Produce was born.

Caplan wanted to bring it to fruition at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) convention in Washington, and she remembers calling her biggest customers at the time — Harold Alston at Stop & Shop, Bob DiPiazza at Dominick’s, and Dick Spezzano at Vons, who were early supporters. Produce Business was also keen to help, running Women in Produce ads, and printing invitations (email was in its infancy).

“I remember being told, ‘Karen, I don’t want you to be disappointed, but I counted the number of women on the registration list for PMA from last year. There’s 35. I don’t think you’re going to need a very big room.’”

Caplan knew otherwise. Organizers printed 500 invitations, and more than 500 people — women and men —wanted to come to recognize women in the industry.

She gives a lot of credit to United Fresh Produce Association and Tom Stenzel, United’s president and chief executive, for the program’s development. Stenzel had “incredible foresight to see what a great and natural opportunity this was,” Caplan says, adding United adopted Women in Produce as an event that it would hold every year at its convention, so she and Stenzel worked closely for the first 15 years of the program.

Caplan has been involved in other industry leadership roles, including the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent. “I remember being in a Foundation board meeting talking about what an opportunity there was to mentor women and other young people in the industry, and that’s when PMA launched Women’s Fresh Perspectives,” Caplan says. Working through the Foundation, it became a two-day conference.

Both these programs, Women’s Fresh Perspective Conference at PMA and Women in Produce at United, continue and doing stronger than ever.

Stenzel recruited Caplan to join the United board, admittedly at a tough time for the organization. In true Caplan form, she set what were questionably high goals and organized a competitive membership contest, which resulted in the best membership numbers ever. And the membership of United grew from there.

Just as her mother had made history, Caplan would become the first female chair of United, and Caplan remembers doing 26 trips on behalf of United in one year, whether it was going to D.C. or attending other organization meetings.

She was also the first female president of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council, and Caplan has served on numerous boards and leadership positions, including chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee.

“Rosemary Talley (of Talley Farms), quite a powerhouse, who’s been on the United board and a Women in Produce honoree, pulled me aside when I became the first female chair of United,” Caplan recalls. “She said, ’You have a responsibility. You can be the first woman to chair a leading national produce association, but you should not be the only one.’ I adapted that as my mantra. I didn’t want to be a token. I wanted to be a pioneer.”

“Eventually, PMA had Janet Erickson as its first female chairperson. The whole idea would be that gender really shouldn’t matter, but at that time, it really did matter because women weren’t even considered. They weren’t even at the table,” Caplan says.

“One of the proudest moments for me was when I was able to call Maureen Torrey Marshall at Torrey Farms and invite her to be the next female chair of United, and since then, we’ve had so many, I don’t even know that I could remember them all now. It’s been fantastic.”

“At my own company, we’re 50% women and 50% men, and that’s in almost every single department,” Caplan says. “That to me is the ultimate acknowledgment that we were doing the right thing.”