Frieda Caplan Sold the U.S. on Kiwi Fruit and Now She's Banking on More Exotic Edibles

updated 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Interested in a light lunch? How about prosciutto and pepino? Or perhaps a bacon, lettuce and tamarillo sandwich with jicama salad on the side? These exotic items are hardly on the average restaurant menu, but if Frieda Caplan has her way, that will change.

Caplan, 58, is the owner of Frieda's Finest Produce Specialties, a flourishing company in Los Angeles that supplies greengrocers and supermarkets all over the U.S. with such out-of-the-ordinary edibles as New Zealand Cranshaw-type melons (pepinos), tree tomatoes (tamarillos) and Mexican potatoes (jicamas). In 1962 Caplan introduced America to the kiwi—the furry, ball-shaped fruit from New Zealand that has become a popular dessert. She followed that with spaghetti squash, which is now a regular in supermarkets. It is so named because it becomes stringy when cooked.

When she began her business in 1962 with a $10,000 loan from her father, Caplan's main item was fresh mushrooms, then something of a rarity. By last year mushroom growers were selling 267 million pounds of their product in the U.S. Caplan now stocks up to 200 fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs, and her company grosses $9 million a year. "Attitudes have definitely changed," says Frieda. "The youth orientation has had a tremendous effect. People are spending money where their health is concerned."

Although other distributors now carry much of the same produce, Caplan is the nation's leading purveyor of exotic edibles, in part because of the way she packages them. "I never call items 'gourmet,' " she notes, "because that connotes high prices." All her foods come in small packages that usually cost under $2. "That way," she says, "consumers can buy on a whim and experiment without making a big cash outlay." Every package has instructions for storing, cooking and eating. "You just can't introduce an item without telling stores and consumers what to do with it," she points out. Thus Frieda explains that the Jerusalem artichoke, which she calls a "sunchoke," is the tuber root of a sunflower; is good for diabetics because it contains a sugar substitute called inulin; should not be sold unpackaged because the vegetable gets spongy when exposed to air, and is best eaten raw or stir-fried.

Frieda's labels always feature recipes created by her elder daughter—and business partner—Karen Caplan-Hembree, 26. A graduate of the University of California at Davis, with a B.S. in agricultural economics and business management, Karen handles the day-to-day running of the firm. Her mother concentrates on large accounts and finding new produce. According to Caplan, she learns of many items because word of mouth in the West Coast produce market is, "If it's odd, take it to Frieda." When a novelty comes her way, Frieda's staff of 52 must try it and like it before she will offer the product for sale. Not all of Caplan's discoveries have caught on. Among her failures have been fun nuts (walnuts in brightly painted shells) and fruit-flavored fortune cookies. "Only my dogs liked them," reports Karen. The current rage, Frieda reports, is herbs: "People are using things like chilis, ginger root and horseradish because they're getting away from salt."

The daughter of an L.A. garment cutter, Frieda graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in political science and married her husband, Alfred, a labor consultant, 30 years ago. She broke into the food business in 1956 when she took a part-time job in the accounting department of a relative's produce operation.

With a day that begins at 4 in the morning and ends 14 hours later, Caplan admits she has no life outside of family and work. "We start these items," she says, "and they develop into industries. But that's where I get my kicks."

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