Tributes

How Frieda Caplan, the 'Kiwi Queen' of California, Changed the Way We Eat

A pioneer of the produce industry, Frieda Caplan recently passed away at the age of 96.

January 27, 2020
Photo by Sean DuFrene for Beach Magazine

Take this recipe for minced beef and bean sprouts. Or perhaps this one, which pairs shiitake mushrooms with silky braised eggplants. Consider, even, this sweet and simple loaf speckled with slices of zippy kiwi.

These recipes owe their popularity largely to the pioneering work of Frieda Caplan, a dynamite saleswoman, who rose to the top of the produce business with her company, Frieda’s Specialty Produce. Her life's work would change the way we eat forever.

Recently, Caplan died at the age of 96.

Caplan was famously known as “the Kiwi Queen” for her success in popularizing the fruit stateside. Once asked by a Safeway buyer if she carried “Chinese gooseberries,” Caplan soon began to stock them. To appeal to a larger swath of customers, she renamed the tart and fuzzy orbs kiwifruit, a nod to the national bird of New Zealand from where the produce came. It took about a decade for the fruit to rise in popularity.

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“Loved reading this ode to the Kiwi Queen. Lovely to know there was a real, live Freida behind Freida's Specialty Foods. ”
— cook4fun
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As Caplan once told the Los Angeles Times, “I like to call it our 18-year overnight success.”

Photo by Frieda's Specialty Produce

But herein lies the gospel of Caplan’s business model: source otherwise unheard of or underrepresented fruits and vegetables and introduce them to American consumers. Every Frieda’s product comes dressed with a purple (her signature color) label, which describes the fruit or vegetable and offers suggestions for how best to enjoy it.

In a Los Angeles Times interview from 1972, Caplan distilled her company’s approach: “There have always been exotic food items," she explained. "We just showcased them, dressed them up, and sold them.”

She is credited with introducing sunchokes, jicama, spaghetti squash, starfruit, dragonfruit, ghost peppers, shiitake mushrooms, purple sweet potatoes, and turmeric root, among many others, to the mainstream American supermarket aisle.

Known for her high energy and fierce attitude, Caplan first entered the produce business in Los Angeles in the 1950s as a bookkeeper for her husband’s aunt and uncle’s produce house. In 1962, after a string of successes and a burgeoning reputation, she opened her own, eponymous company.

With the kiwi as its standout star, Frieda’s formula for sneaking unfamiliar fruit into the grocery baskets of Americans set her apart in the highly male-dominated industry. The produce business required long, arduous hours (she started her workday at 2 a.m.) and was centered in a few-block radius of warehouses in downtown Los Angeles.

Over the years, Caplan has been described as “brash and ebullient—an almost nonstop talker,” and “loquacious, driven.” Working well into her 90s, she continued to show up at the office, in her signature purple, only until recently. Her enduring verve and sharp business acumen are on view in the documentary about her life, Fear No Fruit.

Frieda’s Specialty Produce continues to thrive, employing 75 full-time and 110 part-time employees out of their 81,000-square-foot warehouse in Los Alamitos, California. Today, the business is helmed by two generations of Caplan women: Frieda’s daughters, Karen and Jackie, and her granddaughter Alex.

You can think of her the next time you’re in the produce section buying kiwi.

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Valerio Farris

Written by: Valerio Farris

Former staff writer at Food52. Current anchovy eater.

1 Comment

cook4fun February 9, 2020
Loved reading this ode to the Kiwi Queen. Lovely to know there was a real, live Freida behind Freida's Specialty Foods.