Let’s take a moment to pay tribute to Frieda Caplan, a California food distributor, who died last week at the age of 96, The New York Times reports. If you happen to be eating a kiwi right now, you have Caplan to thank for that: in the early ’60s, her company, Frieda’s Specialty Produce, began importing and selling the fruit then known as the Chinese gooseberry. In a 1985 New York Times article, Caplan took credit for the name change.
Caplan also played an instrumental role in popularizing many other fruits and vegetables in the U.S., including jicama, starfruit, and pepino melon. Part of her marketing strategy involved putting stickers on the packaging that explained how to store and prepare the new products, including recipes.
“Our problem in introducing new vegetables has never been the consumer,” she told the NYT in 1979. “It’s only been with the retailer who is afraid to try anything new. When we pioneer a new item, we are willing to take a small markup to get it introduced. Then when it catches on we realize a better profit.”
Caplan got into the fruit business by accident. As a young mother in 1955, she was looking for a job that would allow her flex time to breastfeed her daughter; her husband’s aunt and uncle took her on as a bookkeeper for their fruit market despite her lack of experience. She opened Frieda’s Specialty Produce in 1962. By 2003, it had annual sales of $50 million. By then, Caplan had turned the business over to her daughters, but she continued to go into the office well into her 90s. This was a woman committed to her life’s work.