January 2020 Produce Parable

Frieda Caplan, The Kiwi Queen

By Adam Calder

In 1923, a pair of Russian immigrants living in Hyland Park, Los Angeles, gave birth to a little girl named Frieda. Unbeknownst to anyone, this little girl would grow up to become a pioneering leader in the produce industry at a time when it was nearly unheard of for women to do such things.

She majored in economics and political science at UCLA, and married labor consultant/union president Alfred Caplan. They soon had a child together, and Frieda wanted a job with flexible hours so she could tend to her new baby. Her husband’s aunt and uncle happened to own a produce distribution house and needed a bookkeeper, and this is where Frieda entered the produce world.

One day she was asked to help fill in for a cashier and accidentally took an order from a customer that was too large for her to fill with the stocks they had on hand. She called everyone in town and then drove around the county until she found a mushroom farm that had what she needed – provided she was willing to help the staff harvest and package the mushrooms.

Frieda did just that, and this started her on a path towards a unique produce procurement business. She soon launched her own produce stand at a nearby market, and word of mouth traveled quickly that if you wanted hard-to-find produce, Frieda was the person to ask.

Frieda was especially interested in helping small, low-volume farmers find a place to sell their produce. She was also interested in bringing new and exotic produce items from around the world to people in the United States.

One day a produce buyer for Safeway asked Frieda if she could get “Chinese Gooseberries”, which the buyer had recently eaten on a trip to New Zealand. She hadn’t heard of them, but months later a broker was walking through the market with a case of them and Frieda bought some. She renamed them to something she thought customers would find more approachable: kiwifruit.

It took a while for kiwifruit to gain popularity in the United States, but it might not have happened at all if not for Frieda’s eagerness to try new foods and to share those with her community. She started including recipes with the produce she sold, and encouraged people to contact her if they had more questions about how to eat and enjoy the food she sold them.

She became an expert in exotic fruits and vegetables, so much so that she was asked to supply “alien” fruits and vegetables for episodes of Star Trek.

Frieda Caplan died on January 18, 2020 at the age of 96. She will be remembered as a leader in the produce industry and a role model for women everywhere. The Kiwi Queen’s legacy lives on in her business, her children, and the lives of the many people she touched over the years with her passion for produce.