Frieda Caplan, Who Enlivened the Produce Aisle, Dies at 96


Frieda Rapoport Caplan, a food distributor who changed the look of American produce aisles and made palates more adventurous by championing kiwifruit, enoki mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes and countless other once-exotic items, died on Jan. 18 at her home in Los Alamitos, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles. She was 96.

Cindy Sherman, head of marketing at Frieda’s Specialty Produce, the company Ms. Caplan founded in 1962, confirmed her death.

Ms. Caplan set about broadening the choices available to American consumers by bringing in products from South America, Australia, Asia and elsewhere and teaching retailers how to store and promote them and buyers how to prepare them.

Perhaps her best-known success story involved an unloved fruit native to China. New Zealanders began growing it early in the last century, and by the early 1960s it was generally known by the off-putting name Chinese gooseberry.

Who came up with the idea of calling it kiwifruit (soon shortened to kiwi), after New Zealand’s national bird, is unclear — various versions of the story have circulated over the years — but it’s certain that Ms. Caplan began promoting this oval outcast under that name. Soon the Alpha Beta Company, a California supermarket chain, began stocking kiwis, and the fruit gradually took hold in the United States.

“What we did gained a lot of press coverage locally,” Ms. Caplan told The New York Times in 1985. “It was picked up nationwide, and the consumers kept coming back.”

Although she entered the business at a time when the United States was very much a meat-and-potatoes country, she always had faith in the public’s willingness to experiment.

“Our problem in introducing new vegetables has never been the consumer,” she told The Times in 1979. “It’s only been with the retailer who is afraid to try anything new. When we pioneer a new item, we are willing to take a small markup to get it introduced. Then when it catches on we realize a better profit.”

Frieda Rapoport was born on Aug. 10, 1923, in Los Angeles to Solomon and Rose (Yanowa) Rapoport. Her father was a pattern cutter for a clothing manufacturer, and her mother was a homemaker.

Ms. Caplan earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1945. In 1951 she married Alfred H. Caplan, and when their first child, Karen, was born in 1955, Ms. Caplan sought a job that would have flexible enough hours to allow her to breastfeed.

She asked her husband’s aunt and uncle, who were managers at a wholesale produce market, if there were any such jobs available. She called on the right day; they had just lost their bookkeeper, and they brought her aboard despite her lack of bookkeeping experience or knowledge of the business.

“I knew nothing about produce or fruits and vegetables other than what I ate,” Ms. Caplan said in “Fear No Fruit,” a 2015 documentary film promoted on the company’s website about her.

She learned other aspects of the business, including sales, and began pushing unusual products for the time, beginning with fresh mushrooms. In the early 1960s, when two stalls became available, the Southern Pacific Railroad, landlord of the market, urged her to start her own business. She did and became the go-to distributor for anyone offering something unusual.

“The other people on the market were only interested in high-volume items,” Ms. Caplan told The Orange County Register in 2015. “Small farmers had no place to go. Nobody was interested. So I started listening to all these small farmers.”

The approach proved, well, fruitful. By 2003 the company was reported to have annual sales of about $50 million. Ms. Caplan built that success as a woman in a largely male business.

“I never had a problem with the men on the market at all,” she said in the documentary. “Once they got over the fact that I was a woman, and they learned they could make money with the items I was selling, I had no problems.”

The bigger obstacle was overcoming culinary inertia.

“At that time,” she told The Times in 1985, referring to her early years in the business, “there wasn’t so much interest in fresh fruits and vegetables, and we didn’t have innovative produce departments. The mind-set of produce merchandisers was potatoes, onions, grapefruit and apples. It was a matter of finding people who were innovative and progressive and getting them together with people who had something to offer.”

The long list of unusual edibles Ms. Caplan championed included Pepino melon from Ecuador, jicama from Mexico and starfruit from Taiwan.

“It has to have taste, it has to have food value, and it has to have shelf life,” Ms. Caplan said, explaining what she looked for in produce.

To help unfamiliar products along, Ms. Caplan came up with the idea of packaging them with labels that explained what they were and gave advice on storage and preparation. A package of yellow Finnish potatoes, for instance, included an explanation of how they differ in flavor from ordinary russet potatoes (a buttery, sweeter taste) and recipes for a hot dish and a potato salad.

Her company’s endorsement could be game changing for a grower, as it was for A.V. Thomas Produce, a California farm, when it obtained a patent for the Stokes purple sweet potato in 2012 and struck a marketing deal with Frieda’s.

“They came up with a great marketing concept, ‘Power Up With Purple,’ and we went from a few acres to 500 acres in just a few years,” Jeremy Fookes, the farm’s retail sales specialist, told The Washington Post last year.

Ms. Caplan was by then no longer running the business; she turned it over to her daughters, Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, in 1990. But she continued to come into the office well into her 90s.

Ms. Caplan’s husband died in 1998. In addition to her daughters, she is survived by four grandchildren.

Ms. Caplan readily admitted that not everything she pushed succeeded.

“Believe me, I’ve had a couple of bombs,” she told the magazine and website Entrepreneur in 2015. There were the fruit-flavored fortune cookies “that only dogs in Dallas wanted.” And the colored walnuts.

“I mean, we tried,” she said, “but now we’re a little more cautious.”

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