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Industry icon and pioneer Frieda Caplan dies at 96

One of the true icons of the fresh produce industry, Frieda Rapoport Caplan, died of natural causes on Saturday, Jan. 18, at the age of 96.FriedaBioPhoto

Ms. Caplan was known throughout the industry, and to consumers, by her first name, which also served as her company moniker, Frieda's Inc. She launched the specialty produce category with the founding of her Los Angeles wholesale operation in the 1960s and is largely credited with introducing, popularizing or both many specialty items, including kiwifruit, Asian pears, spaghetti squash and Habanero chilies.

Ms. Caplan graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1945 and worked in a law firm and a nylon factory until she became pregnant in the 1950s. Attracted to the job because of its flexible hours, she began working for Giumarra Brothers on the Seventh Street Market in Los Angeles. She began her produce career in 1956 as a bookkeeper but soon worked her way downstairs to the street selling brown mushrooms, shallots and other small specialty items that weren't voluminous enough for the larger wholesalers to carry.

In 1962, Ms. Caplan opened Frieda's Produce Specialties, the first wholesale produce company owned and operated by a woman.

A few years ago, Ms. Caplan spoke about the start of her company, saying, "A little known fact is that it was three officers of Southern Pacific Railway (I always referred to them as three old men) who came to me in late 1961, after watching me sell fresh mushrooms for Giumarra Brothers for five plus years, and told me they wanted me to go into business for myself because there was an available 'open door' on the market. I told them 'NO' because I had no idea how to run a business and didn't have the money to run a business, but they insisted I would be a success and really pushed me. That was the start of Frieda's, then known at Produce Specialties Inc., with its bright purple sign."

Of course, the color purple itself was made famous by Ms. Caplan well before Oprah's movie put it on the map. The story of the relationship between Ms. Caplan and purple is a good one, even if it has been told time and time again. On the night before the opening of her business, which was only a short time after the visit from the three SP executives, the painter that was hired to put the name on the building only had enough purple paint to do the job. It looked good enough for Frieda, so that is what was used. Today, that same purple dominates the firm's office decor and is the same color used for the Frieda's brand.

Ms. Caplan's place in the produce industry was well secured by 1986 when her older daughter, Karen, became president and chief executive officer of the operation. Today, it remains a family affair with daughters Karen and Jackie at the helm, and other family members involved as well.

Ms. Caplan remained engaged until her final days, long serving as board chair and a very frequent visitor to the office and industry events.

Ms. Caplan's influence extends beyond brown mushrooms and kiwifruit, though. In 1972, she was credited with being "the biggest influence in the produce industry over the last 25 years," by Marvin Cross, then vice president of The National Tea Co. of Chicago.

Today, Frieda's Inc. distributes more than 600 unusual produce and specialty gourmet items to grocery stores and foodservice distributors throughout North America.

Ms. Caplan received more awards and honors than can be mentioned here, but a couple that stand out are her selection in 1986 as the first recipient of the Harriet Alger Award from Working Woman magazine for being a remarkable entrepreneurial role model for women. Also, the Jan. 1, 1990, edition of The Los Angeles Times named Ms. Caplan as one of 12 Southern California business personalities who shaped the course of American business in the 1980s.

While Ms. Caplan always ignored the falsely perceived limitations of her gender, the fact that she was a woman was often noted because it was such a rarity.

"I remember the very first United convention I ever went to," she recalled. "It was in San Antonio and M.A. Ellison was the chairman. He opened the convention by welcoming everyone saying 'Gentlemen and Frieda Caplan.' I was the only woman there."

Times have certainly changed, and today the number of women holding executive level positions has spiked, but Ms. Caplan stood the tallest and was truly the trailblazer that lit the path for those that have come after her.

Tonya Antle, cofounder of Organic Produce Network and a female produce pioneer in her own right, counted Ms. Caplan as a mentor and a friend. "Frieda took a chance on a young unknown farmer's daughter from the Central Valley and molded me into the professional produce leader that I am today," Antle said. "She was my mentor, role model and second mom. I also credit her with pushing Harold Alston of Stop & Shop Supermarkets to step up and be the first conventional supermarket leader to purchase organic table grapes from us in the mid-80s. Her clout and industry respect helped us propel organics into the mainstream. I will carry her in my heart forever."

"Frieda was an innovator of variety produce," said Ron Pelger, produce industry director and owner of RonProCon. "I go way back with her when I had just been promoted to a produce director at a very early age. At that time of taking on new responsibilities, I was primarily experienced with the common items like apples, bananas, lettuce and potatoes. Then I heard of Frieda's specialty produce and contacted her. She sent me a small list of items I found were quite unique and unusual. I placed an order and that launched a whole new and different merchandising format in our produce program. Frieda taught me a lot about 'odd' items I never even knew existed. She took her personal time to call me and bring new items to the forefront. I have been a fan and supporter of her mission, product, and especially her friendship for many years. I will always respect her dedication to not only me, but to the entire industry. She played a special role in many successes of my career. Frieda will always be in my thoughts and prayers."