Frieda Caplan: A legacy of so much more than kiwifruit

Frieda Caplan: A legacy of so much more than kiwifruit

The produce world was saddened last week to learn of the passing of Frieda Rapaport Caplan, founder of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

I still remember my early days working produce part time while in high school in the mid-’70s. Our small produce department might have stocked 175 SKUs at the time. We merchandised one bright yellow basket in our compact tropical set, filled with what one customer referred to as “fuzzy limes.”

It took some time for customers to become familiar with those fuzzy limes (formerly known as Chinese gooseberries), until they were renamed and marketed as kiwifruit by none other than Frieda Caplan. 

She spearheaded the marketing efforts to bring much more than kiwifruit from New Zealand to the U.S., and was instrumental in putting exotic, or specialty, produce on the map to stay.

As the years went on, the specialty produce category grew. And grew.

By the early ’80s, our produce director worked with Frieda’s, seeing to it that every store received several full pallets of specialty produce to coincide with the Chinese New Year holiday. A few managers grumbled over what to do with it, but most of us produce nerds loved sorting through it all. We loved the combination of merchandising Frieda’s goods, striving to learn about each item, where it was sourced, and of course, sampling everything ourselves.

Especially as we were landlocked in the middle of the country, the discovery of color, flavor, application, textures and more were a welcome reprieve, especially in the dead of winter. Until then, kumquats, sprouts, pearl onions, shiitake mushrooms, spaghetti squash and other items were largely unknown to not only consumers, but us produce retailers.

I’ve learned so much since the fuzzy lime moment. I’ve learned that when properly managed, stocking a full line of specialty produce boosts a produce department’s curb appeal, overall presentation and increases overall sales. I’ve learned that chefs rely on quality specialty produce (herbs, roots, etc.) probably more than even mainstream items to succeed.   

And of the 15,000 or so plants in the world that produce food,  we still know very little. 
I was fortunate to meet Frieda a few years ago and get acquainted with her and her family that manage the business. It was a thrill for this old ’70s kid to meet Frieda at her office. She was gracious, kind and made me feel so welcome. I was in awe to meet this true produce rock star.

While many will pen in-depth and far more fitting eulogies, I can only express, as many will concur, that along with the deserved accolades and deepest condolences, what a rich legacy Frieda has left for us all to study, to reflect upon and to admire. 

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at [email protected].

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UPDATED: Industry pioneer Frieda Rapoport Caplan dies