Frieda Caplan, founder of Frieda’s Inc., receives the first air shipment of New Zealand kiwifruit to America in 1964. ( File photo )

Not many people can say they’ve changed the way a nation eats. Fewer still have also changed the face of an entire industry. Frieda Rapaport Caplan did both.

Caplan founded Frieda’s Inc. in 1962, making her the first woman in the U.S. to own and run a wholesale produce business. The same year, she also introduced a new taste sensation, the kiwifruit, to the American palate — and was ultimately responsible for introducing about 200 fruits and vegetables, everything from shallots and spaghetti squash to jicama and habanero peppers.

Caplan died Jan. 18 at the age of 96, and consumer press and industry members were quick to laud her accomplishments and contributions.

The Los Angeles Times, in a lengthy tribute to Caplan, said she was “loquacious, driven, and loved to take risks,” a “gritty business owner” who “revolutionized the way the produce world did business.” In 1990, the paper named her one of a dozen Californians (including Steve Jobs) who had shaped American business in the 1980s. 

The Orange County Register said she “was ahead of her time on many fronts,” someone who “became an innovator well before women had made much headway in the business world.”

The Wall Street Journal called Caplan an “unlikely celebrity,” who with grit, determination and flair carved out a name not only for herself, but also for the unusual produce items she promoted.

Within the produce sector itself, Caplan was also known for being a champion of people. Following news of her death, numerous industry members — women and men — shared stories of how Caplan had taken an interest in them and their careers, sending personal notes or encouraging e-mails and messages.

“She was a tremendous leader with a brilliant mind who could always pick up where she left off with you,” California Avocado Commission vice president of marketing Jan DeLyser told The Packer. “She remembered birthdays and special life events, checked on those she cared about regularly and was absolutely the biggest fan a person could hope to have.”

PMA president Cathy Burns said in a statement that Caplan literally welcomed her with open arms to the industry.

“... It was not uncommon to open my e-mail and find a note from Frieda offering her unique insights on trends, innovation, and inspiration.”

“When I was a child, Dad introduced me to Frieda at her produce booth on the old LA Produce Market,” said Kenneth Lund, executive vice president of Allen Lund Co. “She was one of the greatest sales professionals I ever met. She was a pioneer in so many ways.”

Bill Crofford, produce director of Reasor’s Foods, called Caplan “a true pioneer who has captured the true spirit of bringing speciality produce into the market.” 

Caplan left her mark on The Packer as well, prompting us to change our “Produce Man of the Year” award to “Produce Marketer of the Year” in 1979 when she became the first woman to receive it.

“You gotta hand it to her,” a source told the LA Times in 1972. “She made something from nothing. There isn’t a produce man in the market who doesn’t take his hat off to her.”

Today the entire produce industry echoes that statement.

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Submitted by Yvette Newell on Thu, 01/30/2020 - 16:35

I retired from this industry almost 5 years ago, but as a woman in this business I take my hat off to Ms. Caplan for paving the way for me to be the success I was. I will always be grateful for her passion to this exciting business. RIP Frieda Caplan.