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Becoming Timeless: Remembering Industry Legend Frieda Rapoport Caplan

Becoming Timeless: Remembering Industry Legend Frieda Rapoport Caplan

Stories make us immortal.

If we learn nothing else from the artists who have mentored us and the people who have shared their life lessons across the industry—it is that.

For Frieda Rapoport Caplan, this story is her echo—a tribute and a thank you. The stuff of immortality. While, for us, it is our blue intonation, it is also our strength and our promise to carry her life on in our hearts—our purple song of hope for you, Frieda.

To say that Frieda was a force of nature for many, a voice in rough waters for some, and a friend to all would only begin to do her justice. Perhaps we start with the page and let the words lead into the heart of the matter—the gift that was Frieda. As a raconteur, maven, mother, friend, daughter, sister, and leader, Frieda added a new shade to the color palette of our lives.

“My mom was so very humble,” Karen Caplan begins, settling into a long pause. “She really didn’t realize what a force she was in our industry. My mom was not afraid to speak her mind or offer her opinion, even if it wasn’t exactly what she was asked. I now call it ‘Tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear,’ and, inspired by her, I have found myself doing just that. And, like her, I don’t always realize that I am being bold. I feel as if I am just being honest. When I talk to customers or growers who knew her at the beginning of her career, that’s what they comment on most—that she was direct, bold, and ‘one tough broad.’”

As Karen, now President and Chief Executive Officer of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, the company her mother built, shares this with me, a bright smile spreads across her face. She casts a line back into her memory and you can see her mother in her eyes and her smile.

“Mom led an amazing life of more than 96 years, and she has inspired both women and men to be the best version of themselves,” Karen reflects. “She was built with so much love.”

The subtext that surfaces throughout these lives touched by Frieda is that she had the kind of soul that saw obstacles as opportunities and became not just a woman for women, but an advocate for all. If she were here, she might even turn this sentence on its head, taking that positivity and optimism and smoothing over the obstacle-claiming edges of my phrasing. Because, in reality, she could not see an obstacle at all.

And this boldness and love Karen speaks to are inseparable from her unique life perspective and were contagious for so many who looked to Frieda as a foothold and a voice in the industry. Her brave and vivacious personality quickly gave others a license to be the same—unapologetically themselves.

“My mom was one of the most vibrant and positive people I have ever known. We frequently joked that if someone spit in her face, she would ask if it was raining. She rarely spoke ill about anyone. She always saw and expected the best in everyone. She was self-effacing,” Jackie Caplan Wiggins shares. “But, the one thing that created a lasting impression on me was the fact she never formed an opinion about a person before meeting them, regardless of what others said. She reserved judgment based on the interaction she had with that person.”

Like others who looked to Frieda for guidance and inspiration, Jackie gravitated toward her mother’s authenticity and passion with admiration, both as a daughter and in her role as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

"My mom was so very humble. She really didn’t realize what a force she was in our industry. My mom was not afraid to speak her mind or offer her opinion, even if it
wasn’t exactly what she was asked."

Karen Caplan, President and Chief Executive Officer, Frieda’s Specialty Produce

A rare breed of human, Frieda is almost spoken of like a mythical figure. But, to those who loved and knew her, she was a living legend and an icon. Her humanity, sincerity, and kindness were only complemented by her drive, ambition, and charisma. Such a person traverses generations and speaks the language of so many in our industry, from the hearts and minds of the old-timers to those of the next generation that will inevitably shape the path we pave ahead.

“Frieda’s belief in me and my abilities has truly changed how I move through the world, personally and professionally. When others talk about that one person or mentor that made them believe in themselves, I never had that experience until I realized that’s what my grandma’s belief in me had been all along—especially over the last two years of her life,” Alex Berkley says. As the Director of Sales for Frieda’s Specialty Produce, she speaks intimately of her deep gratitude for her grandmother, for the career she led, and for the life she taught Alex to lead. “She believed in my judgment of character, decision-making skills, and balance of risk and reward. When I start to lose faith in myself or my imposter syndrome creeps up, I ask myself, ‘What would Grandma tell me I should do?’ and I remember how she made me feel in those moments of doubt.”

With each word the family shares, the near impossibility of encapsulating Frieda’s life on the page feels like an endeavor to combine the mythical and the real—a worthy challenge. While I ventured to call her a legend, she was much more widely known as a queen—a Kiwi Queen.

Wearing the crown of both kiwifruit and mushrooms proudly, Frieda’s start came before she became industry royalty, beginning her career in produce by working for the Giumarra Brothers Company on the 7th Street Wholesale Produce Market in Los Angeles, California.

In a move so distinct of a living legend, on April 2, 1962, the specialty produce maven opened Produce Specialties, Inc. on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market when being a woman in leadership at all, let alone owning a business, was a rare event. And so her kingdom took root. The burgeoning operation’s light lavender signs drew attention and later became the company’s signature color.

Frieda’s greatest joy was that she got to work side by side with her daughters every day. In 1977, Karen joined Frieda in what was becoming a family operation, with Jackie coming on board in 1983. Most recently, her eldest grandchild, Alex, joined the now third-generation family-owned business in 2011.

With her family entering the royal fold, Frieda was able to step into a host of different challenges and arenas as she continued to impact how not only women were valued in business, but people across rich and diverse backgrounds. She advocated for our industry, of course, but also for the communities in which she lived and thrived. Frieda’s deep compassion led her passionately into politics in an array of ways and actions during her life—giving her platforms a voice—and the visionary’s presence became even more courageous and profound as her life went on.

Looking back at that road of political growth and advocacy, Frieda ran student body campaigns while she was a student at UCLA and was even named “Miss UCLA,” in 1945 for being the best-known person on campus—another crown that spoke to her ability to connect with people and passions. On top of those accomplishments, Frieda was active in many local organizations over the years, all of which provided support to people regardless of age, gender, race, color, sexual orientation, or financial status.

“If my mom could speak to building her legacy now, she would say, ‘get involved politically,’ whether it is through a trade association or by registering and voting in local elections. My mom was a political activist to her core,” Karen shares. “That’s one of the main reasons that my sister Jackie and I funded and established the Frieda Rapoport Caplan Family Business Scholarship through the United Fresh Produce Association in 2001, to give an employee of a family business a sponsorship opportunity to attend the Washington Conference in September of each year. We knew that by introducing two to four newer members of our industry to lobbying on Capitol Hill and seeing for themselves the impact one person’s voice could make, that we could affect political change.”

"My mom was one of the most vibrant and positive people I have ever known. We frequently joked that if someone spit in her face, she would ask if it was raining. She rarely spoke ill about anyone. She always saw and expected the best in everyone."

Jackie Caplan Wiggins, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Frieda’s Specialty Produce

Jackie echoes this strong sentiment of Frieda’s political prowess, passion, and advocacy.

“She would want us to remain politically active. Whether it is attending United’s Washington Conference, writing or calling our congressional and local representatives, or supporting important causes financially, we have the obligation to speak up. Don’t be bystanders. Participate,” Jackie expresses.

As an industry, we can carry on her legacy by lifting up others around us, Alex adds.

“Inside and outside of our own companies, inspiring and encouraging young people to join and thrive in our industry and to advocate politically on what we know is right can keep that passionate fire burning that Frieda started so long ago,” she says. “She gave so deeply to us so we could see how to give to others.”

As was that strong nature to give and discover, Frieda decided to enroll and be a part of a longitudinal study conducted at the University of California—Irvine (UCI) Mind Institute in Irvine, California, to help find the cause and cure for Alzheimer’s. After her passing, her brain was donated to UCI Mind to be studied to help find a cure and treatment for the disease.

Throughout her life, Frieda created moments like these that would not only live on beyond and after her, but that would impact all those lives she touched for the remainder of theirs.

“I can’t say that there is one moment that encompasses her for me, but rather a compilation of similar moments. It was how she made people feel. Whether it was a client, a friend, or someone she just met, she had the ability to make them feel like they were the most important person in the room. After she passed away, I read over 1,500 emails from people expressing their condolences. Almost every one of the emails mentioned how special she always made them feel. She had that gift,” Jackie says, taking a moment to gather her thoughts. “She truly was an extraordinary human being. I can honestly say that there will never be another person in the world like her. Fortunately, because of her impact, the Queen of Kiwi will live on in all of us forever.”

Those moments, for both her family and friends, were many and wide-ranging, spanning decades, demographics, and generations. As Karen thinks back on one of her most memorable moments, she smiles and takes me on a journey to 40 years ago.

“In 1979, during the Produce Marketing Association Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, I sat next to Mom at a luncheon during which The Packer Man of the Year Award was announced. As they were reading the ‘anonymous’ hints of who the winner was, she finally realized it was her, and she said under her breath, ‘I’ll be damned.’ When she got up to accept the award, she thanked Produce Managers and open-minded Produce Directors as the key to ‘her’ success—always thanking others. Mind you, she also handed it back since she was not a man…and subsequently, The Packer renamed it the Marketer of the Year award,” Karen says and then laughs. “That was Mom.”

Alex loves that story as well, and can’t help but wonder how many people have individual memories just like that one.

“Seeing almost 1,000 people come to my grandma’s memorial was all-encompassing of who she was. Everyone in that room truly felt close to her, yet everyone’s experience was different and meaningful,” Alex tells me. “To see people from all over the world, of all different ages and backgrounds having been touched so strongly by one woman, still has me speechless. I think this truly encompasses Frieda’s spirit and the impact she left on the world.”

And her words ring so very true, as our friends share their memories and their tributes to Frieda with us...

Roger Harkrider, Vice President of Produce/Floral, Brookshire Grocery Company

“Frieda Caplan was truly one-of-a-kind. Her vigor, energy, and the constant pursuit of knowledge and improvement were second to none. What I appreciated most was that she only saw opportunities, never obstacles. When I called Frieda on her birthday last year, she was kind and appreciative. It should have come as no surprise when, after a few minutes of conversation, she was in full-on ‘Frieda mode,’ seizing the opportunity to tell me we should be doing more business with her and why. Afterward, I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought, knowing I should expect nothing less from her. That was Frieda. Should any of us be blessed with such a long life, we should strive to emulate Frieda’s drive and focus to inspire others to be active, positive, and affect change in such an elegant fashion. While we miss her, Frieda will live on in so many of us.”

Dick Spezzano, Founder, Spezzano Consulting Service, Inc.

“Around 1975, while working for the VONS Companies in the Southern California market, I was promoted to a Produce Buyer from the position of a Field Merchandiser for Produce and Floral, with the responsibility of 22 stores. The responsibilities and skillsets for those two positions differ from those in the field, but all manage work for the company and have its best interest at heart. As a buyer at that time, you worked with many vendors: L.A. Terminal Market operators, brokers, distributors, as well as working directly with growers and shippers. Each had to make a profit for their company and not all were experts in the commodities that I was responsible for. In the handoff from the buyer I was replacing, he told me who he thought were the best of the vendors of each of my commodities, and who he considered being the experts. When it came to the specialties category, he identified Frieda Caplan as the very best. Her produce stall was on the L.A. Terminal Market next to Giumarra’s. This turned out to be fruitful for me as I often finished my daily buying at about 4:00 a.m. at Giumarra and then would go upstairs to Frieda’s office.

She was certainly the expert in the specialties category, but so much more. She helped me create my vendor partners as she would steer me in the right direction, and on occasion would say, ‘Only buy from them at arm’s length, as they will find a way to take advantage of you.’ She taught me to be a fair buyer who treated my vendors as partners. She would say, ‘Your vendor partners would have to earn their way on your vendor list and could only fail their way off that list.’ She also gave me great advice on how to advance my career, how to have a great home life, and how to be a loving parent. I always said I had a special relationship with Frieda, and I found out later in my career that many successful people said the same thing about her. What a great life she had and what a great legacy she leaves behind.”

Tonya Antle, Co-Founder, Executive Vice President, Organic Produce Network

“Frieda was my first produce boss, mentor, second mom, and a true force of nature. Her energy was unstoppable and infectious. I had the rare gift of sitting between Frieda and Karen during my early days on the sales desk as she helped me create my own personal style of selling. I took all of her valuable lessons on how to sell specialty produce and incorporated those techniques into my early days of selling organics. What I loved most was how she treated everyone with the same level of respect and her never-ending willingness to share and teach. Frieda was the perfect combination of a kind, beautiful woman and a powerhouse businessperson. I miss her constant emails that shared her passion for a cause, or a celebratory note to cheer me on for something that I had accomplished. Frieda was a true leader, innovator, and inspiration for the entire produce industry. She can now fly free. Rest in peace, dear Frieda.”

Bruce Peterson, Founder, Peterson Insights

“When I think of Frieda Caplan, the word that would describe her influence on me would be: conviction. It might be hard to imagine today, but in the early days of Walmart’s entry into food, there were many in the trade press and in the financial community that were critical about what we were doing. When I came to Walmart, there were six supercenters and plenty of skepticism as to whether Walmart, a general merchandise retailer, could have any meaningful influence in the food industry. And it was Karen Caplan who I first interacted with. I met Karen at trade shows and conferences, and we had occasion to talk about our respective careers and how we interacted with the ‘traditional’ produce industry. I was struck by Karen’s, and later her sister Jackie’s, absolute conviction with regards to their business. And when Karen introduced me to Frieda, I knew right away where they got it from! She was fearless. It was a great lesson in leadership—in trusting your convictions in the face of skepticism.”

Hugh Topper, Retired Group Vice President, H-E-B

“When anyone thinks of Frieda, they automatically think of her innovation, business acumen, and entrepreneurial spirit—all of which are highly accurate and true. Along with these, there are two things that, personally, I will always remember about her and, hopefully, I learned from her. Both entailed her ability to connect with people:

First, was her way to make everyone feel important. It didn’t matter if you were the President of a company, a Produce Buyer, or a Produce Clerk in a store. When you were with Frieda, she valued and hung onto every word you had to say. You always walked away thinking, ‘Wow, she really listened and appreciated everything I said. And, more importantly, she valued me as a person.’

Second, Frieda never forgot anyone. She could meet a person once, then walk up to them a year later and call them by name. She would even recall and talk about their last meeting. Not sure how she did this, but she was amazing.”

Jan DeLyser, Vice President of Marketing, California Avocado Commission

“Frieda Caplan’s insatiable thirst for knowledge was an inspiration to everyone who knew her and is one of the things I loved most about her. It really didn’t matter who you were or what you did, she had an innate ability to make you feel important and valued. She had a clarity of purpose and remained true to her core values. Frieda truly was one of those once-in-a-lifetime people and there is no doubt the world is a better place because of her.

She was always the first person you would hear from via e-mail or voicemail, sometimes very early in the morning, to offer either congratulations or condolences as warranted. I saved more than a few of her e-mails and refer to them on occasion to keep me on the straight and narrow. I try to reach out to family, friends, and people in the industry to acknowledge their accomplishments. I am no Frieda Caplan, but I know how much hearing from her meant to me over the years. I have thought of Frieda frequently since her passing and have tried to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as she would have, by staying informed and on course.”

Cathy Burns, Chief Executive Officer, Produce Marketing Association

“Frieda is revered for her insatiable curiosity and unlocking the market on new produce items, but I wholeheartedly believe she took equal, if not greater, delight in unlocking the potential in people. In doing so, she didn’t make me feel like the most important person in the room—she always made me feel like the only person in the room.

While accepting the Center for Growing Talent Women’s Catalyst Award in October 2019, at the age of 96, just a few months before her passing, Frieda expressed a desire for her legacy to be a catalyst for young people to understand the impact their voice has on their futures. You could have heard a pin drop as she affirmed, ‘Silence is NOT an option.’ I can say with complete confidence that her fearlessness has inspired me, as well as my own daughters, to lean in strong for what we believe in.

Her curiosity unlocked the world for Frieda. Her kindness unlocked the potential in each of us.”

Tom Stenzel, President and Chief Executive Officer, United Fresh Produce Association

“One thing you probably all know is that Frieda was good at giving advice. I always looked forward to seeing Frieda at Fresh Produce and Floral Council luncheons and other industry events. She greeted me with a big hug, followed soon with a suggestion about something United needed to be doing better. Your true friends are the ones who tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear. I’ll always treasure the advice that Frieda gave me over the years.

But there’s one bit of advice that Frieda never verbalized to me, yet is probably the most important thing she shared: Be passionate about your work. Love your family. Make as many friends as you can. Live life to the fullest. And make a difference.

When Kathy and I had our daughter, Rachel, 17 years ago, we got to know a different Frieda—Grandma Frieda. This loving grandmother to a child she never met was warm, supportive, and caring. Frieda remembered her special days sometimes better than I did. Our Rachel grew up knowing that her dad worked for some wonderful people. Frieda, you truly made a difference in my life and so many others.”

And so, Frieda, we set these words adrift for your heart, so that your stories will live on in your family and friends with the same light you shared and shone on us all. We will always hold a purple flame to your life, your gift, and your memory. 

Becoming Timeless: Remembering Industry Legend Frieda Rapoport Caplan