When Karen Caplan took over the family produce business, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, never dissuaded by the fact that no one had ever heard of a sunchoke.
Frieda’s Specialty Produce occupies a massive two-story building in Los Alamitos, Calif., just 20 miles south of Los Angeles. The office and test kitchen take up the front of the building, while a giant warehouse in the back is stocked with things like tamarindo pods and mangosteen, boxes of knobby galangal and turmeric root.
A whimsical, sometimes quirky vibe fills the air. It’s not unheard of to see someone walking into a conference wearing a cape, a laptop in one hand and a wand in the other. The 80,000 square-foot warehouse is busy with forklifts shuttling goods between micro-climate industrial refrigerators, and people packing boxes and filling orders.
The operation is immaculate and efficient. The same words can describe CEO Karen Caplan, 61, who is well manicured, articulate and commanding. She’s the type of woman that makes people sit up a little taller, try a little harder.
“You have to have passion about your work. Whatever your business is,” she said. “It was my destiny to be in the food business and to be running a company. I love it.”
Frieda’s Produce brings exotic fruits and vegetables to American retailers like Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Albertsons, Whole Foods and hundreds of others. Caplan runs the 75-employee company with a mix of fearlessness and passion.
Frieda Feeds Family Tradition
Caplan is the daughter of 94-year-old Dr. Frieda Rapoport Caplan, who started the produce distribution company in 1962 by introducing the kiwi fruit to American consumers. She trail-blazed the way for future generations by becoming the first woman to own and operate a produce company in the exclusively male L.A. produce market.
She was the first woman voted “Produce Man of the Year,” and won many accolades for being a pioneering entrepreneur in a time when women simply weren’t.
“Part of the key to her success is that she didn’t see the obstacles,” said Caplan. “For her, they really weren’t there.”
Every day her mom arrived at the market at 2 a.m. to meet buyers, always wearing a dress, pantyhose and high heels despite the cold of the night. Her business was about convincing people they needed produce they’d never even seen before.
Her mom was hardworking but her success came from long hours – she’d work 16-hour days when others in the industry worked eight. However, when Caplan finished college with plans to take over the business, she thought there must be another way.
In 1990, Caplan bought the business with her sister, Jackie Caplan Wiggins. They’d grown up in the industry, stuffing envelopes and working the fruit stand since age 10.
“It was pretty uncomplicated, pretty simple in the beginning. We were handwriting orders. There was zero technology in the business at all,” Caplan said. “What was complicated was we were selling products that no one had ever heard of, tasted or seen, and there was virtually no demand for it.”
But like her mother, she doesn’t see the obstacles.
“When I’m describing a spiky orange horned melon to a buyer, it doesn’t even cross my mind that they wouldn’t want to buy it,” she said.
Caplan was eager to grow the business and bring it into the digital age, both for her company but also to stay relevant to younger digital natives – people growing up knowing nothing of a world without the internet or computers.
“I was cautious and respectful of what my mom had done to build the business to what it was. But I took advantage of my different view of things to start making changes,” she said. “I had a vision of where the company could go. It was like the world was my oyster – my oyster mushroom.”
Caplan writes a weekly blog about seemingly disparate things – the Super Bowl, getting a good night’s sleep, the merits of the ugli fruit – but the thread that weaves these tales together is leadership.
Caplan is never not running her business.
“We’re very fast adapters in all areas of technology,” she said. “In 1996, we put up the first website in the produce industry. We had to print a paper brochure to mail it out to our customers to tell them we were on the internet.”
Today, Frieda’s website shows live feeds of produce growing in the field or products ready to ship from the warehouse, giving customers a bird’s eye view of the produce journey.
The company’s website and Instagram offer information on selecting, storing and cooking with the more than 200 exotic fruits and veggies Frieda’s has introduced to American consumers — from habanero peppers to sunchokes to purple sweet potatoes.
She recently switched her employees from desktop computers to laptops.
“Our employees have to be aware of what’s going on 24/7,” she said, adding that the portability not only allows her staff to work anywhere, but also with each other more collaboratively.
Her own laptop, a Dell XPS 13 with Intel Core i7 vPro processor, allows her move between work and home without having to sync anything.
“It’s been an amazing tool to enable my creativity,” she said.
Fruit and Fearlessness
Caplan believes that in addition to passion, small business owners must be willing to take risks.
“It is an absolute requirement to be fearless when you run a business,” she said. “Sometimes you’re going in a direction no one else has been before. And the leader has to be leading the charge.”
She believes in the power of good manners – treating staff with respect and encouraging a fun working atmosphere. She regularly sends customers and growers personal notes on their birthdays.
Like her mother before her, Caplan believes that authenticity is key.
“People know when you’re faking it,” she said. “So, if you’re not genuine, you’d be silly to think that people don’t recognize that.”
Caplan and her sister took over where their mother left off, bringing Frieda’s into more stores around the world, and navigating the company into the digital age.
But it’s still hard to shake their mother’s strong work ethic.
“It’s not completely unusual on a Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. that I look across and there’s my sister sitting in her office and I’m sitting in my office and there are no other employees around. I call her up and say, ‘What is wrong with this picture? We’re still doing what mom did.’”
Running a business is exhausting but Caplan said there’s nothing else she’d rather do. After all, she gets to have her passion fruit and eat it too.
Editor’s note: Karen Caplan’s story is part of iQ’s #SHEOWNSIT series, which spotlights women small business owners and their journeys of success.