I had the chance to chat on Nov. 12 with Karen Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

Chat - Karen Caplan

11:01 a.m. Karen Caplan: Hi Tom.

11:02 a.m. Tom Karst: Hello Karen. You are right on time. Thanks for having this chat today!   First of all, what do you find yourself working on this week? What’s in your inbox at Frieda’s?

11:05 a.m. Karen: After two days out with “flu-like symptoms” I had a lot of catching up to do. First thing was a meeting with my Marketing Manager to get an update on our Social Media Marketing Plan.
Tom: Twitter and the like ...

11:06 a.m. Karen: Twitter is only one application. Then I’ve been getting constant instant messages from our sales team about big orders that have come in … it’s a big week, as we are shipping a lot for Thanksgiving business.

11:07 a.m. Karen: It looks like retailers are realizing that “everyone will be shopping big in their stores” ... and they are stocking up. Nice to see.

11:08 a.m. Tom: Speaking of Thanksgiving and how retailers order, do you notice changes in the product mix this year ... perhaps recession related or other factors at work?

11:10 a.m. Karen: As far as product mix this year, we have seen a definite air of caution as far as risk taking, on new items especially. We anticipated this about two years ago, which is why we modified our product mix and reduced our item count — doing “SKU RAT” before it was well publicized in the retail community.

11:14 a.m. Tom: Interesting. I was just talking with a retailer about deflation and it is something that’s difficult for them to work through.

11:15 a.m. Karen: Monday — I spent the day in Sacramento — I am on the Board of the Ag Issues Center based at UC Davis. We got an update on MOCA — The Measure of California Agriculture which is THE source of information on what we really do in California. Our board of about eight thought leaders in California agriculture provides guidance on future research initiatives for the University of California.

11:16 a.m. Tom: There is much at issue for California agriculture. That’s sounds like a vital group with all the water and food safety issues right now.

11:18 a.m. Karen: At the AIC we been talking about water for many years. Coincidentally, my advisor when I was a student at UCD is Richard Howitt — the authority on Water Policy and he has spoken to us many times.

11:19 a.m. Tom Karst: I wanted to ask you about your mom, Frieda. I noticed she has recently co-authored a book so it sounds like she is still active. What do you most appreciate about her?

11:20 a.m. Karen: About my mom — she attended a fundraiser for a local library at which they offered for sale the cookbook I wrote, “The Purple Kiwi Cookbook.” Mom doesn’t cook and never has! She was the original working mother, which is why I ended up being the family cook at such a young age.

11:21 a.m. Tom: I got that wrong — you are the author — sorry!

11:21 a.m. Karen Caplan: Mom is now 86 years young and does come to the office every day! She is very proud of this ... and loves to tell people that she works for her daughters now!

11:22 a.m. Tom: Ha ... that’s good she feels that way, I’m sure.

11:23 a.m. What are the challenges of growing up in a family produce business? As your own daughter gets involved will she have the same challenges you did — or do you think the challenges will be different today?

11:25 a.m. Karen: When my sister Jackie and I grew up, my parents never encouraged nor discouraged us from joining the business — but they did allow us to work there in summers and vacations. We both independently decided to make it our career — much to the surprise of our parents. In a family business, I think it always feels like you have to work twice as hard to get half as far, because you are the boss’s daughter. And for us, Mom is such an icon in the industry. There were some pretty big shoes to fill.

11:27 a.m. Karen: As far as my daughter Alex goes, I have used the same approach, which I would encourage other parents to use — let them make their own decision. I neither encouraged nor discouraged her, but allowed her to experience our business and the industry during summers and vacations. And of course she has attended a few United, PMAs and most recently the WPPC.

11:30 a.m. Karen: Speaking of family business — we are so honored to have been nominated for a Family Business Award by the Orange County Business Journal and Cal-State University at Fullerton. It’s quite an honor. The award ceremony is next week … our fingers are crossed.

11:32 a.m. Tom: Very good. I know I have kept you a while. Just a couple more thoughts. You have been involved in many leadership positions in the industry. How would you describe your legacy and impact of your involvement? What’s one thing you still want to accomplish?

11:34 a.m. Karen: As far as the impact, two things come to mind. First, women are more visible and taken more seriously in our industry. I don’t think that’s because of me — but I was at the right place at the right time and was fortunate that I could be the spokesperson. Second, when I was chair of United Fresh Produce Association, we began lobbying for the School Snack Program and for adding more fresh produce to the WIC program. That’s more than 6 years ago.

11:36 a.m. Tom: You’re right. The industry may not appreciate fully what those programs mean now and in the future.

11:36 a.m. Karen: The one thing that I would like to see accomplished is truly educating the American consumer to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Actually, Tom, this is the perfect way to end our interview. Our company adopted as our purpose to change the way America eats by marketing a variety of fruits and vegetables and working with enlightened retailers, growers and chefs to accomplish this. It’s a big goal — some would say it is a BHAG!

11:37 a.m. Tom: BHAG?

11:38 a.m. Karen: Big Hairy Audacious Goal! (I’m sure your audience would know what this is).

Tom: Now they do and me too. Thanks again Karen for your time. I really appreciate it.