business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

On Saturday morning, Frieda Rapoport Caplan passed away. She was 96, and leaves behind not just a family company that continues to push the boundaries in terms of new and unfamiliar produce items imported into the US, but also a life in which she pushed boundaries in terms of what was appropriate and acceptable.

I feel the loss enormously. Frieda was my friend.

In 1962, Frieda launched Frieda's Produce Specialties in Los Angeles. It was the first wholesale produce company owned and operated by a woman.

The Los Angeles Times, in its obit, describes her as "the woman who broke the glass ceiling in the testosterone-doused produce world and forever changed the way Americans eat fruits and vegetables … a tenacious maven credited for introducing kiwis, mangoes, habanero and shishito peppers, passion fruit, bean and alfalfa sprouts, baby carrots, sugar snap peas, starfruit, blood oranges, shiitake mushrooms, turmeric, and hundreds more fruits and vegetables into the supermarket mainstream. Into the bellies of American consumers."

Frieda, the Times writes, "was loquacious, driven and loved to take risks … In heels and a skirt, she revolutionized the way the produce world did business, adding recipes and cooking instructions on packages of exotic produce to tame the distrust of an unsuspecting public."

CBS Sunday Morning produced a piece about Frieda that was supposed to run last fall, but was held until they had more time to devote to the piece; now an appreciation of a wonderful life, the piece ran yesterday, and you can watch it here.

I'm not exactly sure how we became friends. I think we saw each other at the occasional industry event, and suddenly I was getting emails from this wonderfully opinionated woman in her late eighties and early nineties, relentlessly curious, making suggestions about things to read, people to get to know, offering critiques about this story or that commentary, and even telling me when she didn't like the picture I was using, and expressing approval when I changed it.

I last saw Frieda on November 16. I knew she'd been laid up by a broken leg and subsequent complications, and so I stopped by her house in Southern California to say hi. It wasn't just a quick visit with an ailing friend. She asked me questions about MNB stories she'd read, told me about books she'd been reading, and was thoroughly engaging - I think I was there for a couple of hours.

When I heard that Frieda has passed away, it hit me like a freight train … I know she was 96, but I fully expected that she’d be around for many more years. She had such a wonderfully indomitable spirit, infectious enthusiasm for life, and mischievous sense of humor - she was the kind of old person that I would like to be, which is to say not really old at all. Sometimes the parts wear out, but the heart and soul continue on. In Freida’s case, they will be sustained by the business she created and that her family - Karen and Jackie and Alex - shepherd and grow. But they also will find life in those of us lucky enough to know her.

She opened our eyes to what is possible. I'll always treasure her friendship.