In the lobby of Frieda's Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos is a stairway with a time line consisting of 12 pictures of produce, each accompanied by a year. Asian pears, jicamas, kiwis, snap peas, habaneros and more—all now commonplace in the American pantry, but thought of as bizarre until introduced to consumers by the woman whose silhouette looms just to the right of the staircase: namesake Frieda Caplan.
That's just the Cliffs Notes version of Caplan's legacy. Painted on nearly half a wall of the Frieda's massive warehouse is a list of more than 100 other fruits and veggies the company introduced to the U.S.: spaghetti squash, pine nuts, elephant garlic, dragonfruit, starfruit, mangos, shallots and way, way more.
And the crazy thing? Caplan is still at it.
Now 92, Caplan is a legend many times over in the produce industry: pioneer, innovator, a proud feminist in a notoriously macho world whose jovial nature masks a steely determination that rivals knew never to underestimate. Her media savvy has logged her national headlines and appearances on television shows (including a memorable turn with David Letterman during his NBC days) since the 1960s. She could've retired 30 years ago to her Rossmoor home and let daughters Karen (president, CEO) and Jackie (vice president, COO) run the company on their own. Yet Caplan continues to show up to the office every day to work, wearing her trademark purple, long after her peers left work for the golf course.
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"Why would I ever want to retire when what I do is this fun?" asks the UCLA graduate during a recent lunch at Coconut Rabbit, a favorite of hers. And last year was a particularly memorable one, with the debut of Fear No Fruit, a delightful documentary about Caplan's life that's now available on Hulu and Amazon Prime. But Caplan would rather research the future than dwell on the past. She says the next great produce discoveries will come from India, a country whose dizzying varieties of fruits and vegetables still remain relatively unknown stateside.
"People forget how huge India is," Caplan says. "And their flavors span everything. American food just doesn't have that diversity—and Americans want more flavor in their food now."
Knowing what we're going to want to eat years before we know it: That's the Frieda's way. She called the move toward organic and fair-trade decades before anyone else and thinks we're undergoing a fundamental change in our diet, one Caplan's company is ready to capitalize on.
"Americans are eating less meat than ever before," Caplan says with a hearty laugh. "Isn't it wonderful?"