If omitting a key fact or two is the equivalent of telling a little white lie, then it was just that — a little white lie — that launched one of the West’s most successful fresh produce ventures.
In the 1950s, Frieda Caplan was a bookkeeper for Giumarra Bros. Fruit Co. at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.
“I was only at Giumarra because my husband’s aunt and uncle were managing the L.A. market for them,” she said.
When the couple asked Caplan to perform cashier’s duties as they took a 25th wedding anniversary vacation, she jumped at the chance. What she didn’t tell the couple was the little white lie — that she was pregnant with her second child.
At the cashier’s post, Caplan observed that none of the company’s salesmen was handling mushrooms.
Caplan began asking customers if they would be interested in mushrooms and was rewarded with a large order from a market chain.
The only problem, she was to discover, was the company’s meager supply of the commodity.Undaunted, Caplan loaded her baby daughter, Karen, in the family’s station wagon and drove late at night to a Southern California hothouse. She returned with a carload of mushrooms.
“They felt sorry for me, and that’s what started the whole mushroom program,” Caplan said. “It was just a fluke.”
When the bosses returned from their vacation, Caplan continued marketing mushrooms. In short order, she became known as the market’s mushroom queen, she said.
The title, Caplan believes, opened the door to the market’s invitation in 1961 to take over a vacated terminal market location.
Frieda Caplan-owned Produce Specialties Inc. was born. It would be the stage on which Caplan would score repeated produce firsts and build a legendary career.
Within months of opening, Produce Specialties introduced Chinese gooseberries to the U.S. Caplan soon renamed the specialty as kiwifruit, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I’m sure you’ve heard I’m allergic to kiwis and I can’t cook,” Caplan said.
Caplan was oblivious to her minority status as the first woman to own and operate a U.S. wholesale produce business.
“I was never aware of the fact that I was in a male-dominated industry,” she said.
She did notice, however, that her presence at the wholesale produce market made a difference: The men cleaned up their language, and they always took her telephone calls, Caplan said.
“Mom has always been somewhat gender blind,” said Jackie Caplan-Wiggins, vice president of what is now Frieda’s Inc., the firm’s third name.
In between was Frieda’s Finest Produce Specialties Inc.
In 1986, older daughter Karen Caplan became company president, and Frieda Caplan took over as chairman of the board of Frieda’s Inc.
Today, at 86, Caplan continues to credit others — and happenstance — for her success.
“I was very fortunate for the first 20 years or so that I really had no real competition any place in the world,” she said. “The business just grew.”
Caplan attributes her mother’s work ethic to grandparents — Frieda’s parents who came to the U.S. from the Ukraine shortly before Frieda was born.
“At a time when it was more common for women to be housewives and stay home, she never gave it a second thought,” Karen said of her mother.
Not only uncommon but strongly frowned upon in the early ’60s was the wardrobe flexibility today’s women enjoy. For instance, women wearing pants was taboo at the produce market, Karen said.
“Mom wore dresses, hose and high heels — at 2 a.m.,” she said. “Mom was always laser focused on business.”
If there were roadblocks for a woman-owned company, Frieda Caplan was blind to them, Karen said.
“She never saw obstacles. Mom didn’t know they were there,” she said.