The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sustainability Series: Frieda’s Specialty Produce – Focus on Women in Food

Sustainability Series: Frieda’s Specialty Produce – Focus on Women in Food


February 24, 2013

Based in Los Alamitos, California, Frieda’s, Inc. is the nation’s leading marketer and distributor of specialty produce. Frieda’s, Inc. is credited with introducing over 200 kitchen-staples, such as Kiwifruit, Brown Mushrooms, Alfalfa Sprouts, Spaghetti Squash, Jicama, Shallots, Mangos, Donut Peaches and a wide variety of Latin and Asian specialties. Back in 2009, we talked to Karen Caplan, President and CEO of Frieda's Specialty Produce, about how the demand for specialty and exotic produce helped small community and large-scale farmers produce in a more sustainable manner. Recently, we checked back in with Caplan to talk about what it means to be a female business owner in the food industry.

Why is a female-run business in a unique position to tackle issues of sustainability?

Perhaps our dual roles as business owners and mothers/caretakers help prepare us for sustainability issues. As busy women who also have children and families, we are always thinking about the most efficient ways to do things, and efficiency often translates into sustainability in the produce business. As a woman business owner, I am as concerned about the sustainability of the planet as I am about my business.

We spoke to you about your sustainability initiatives a little over four years ago. How have your sustainability practices changed since then? 

Our core sustainability practices have not changed, but we continue to add and refine procedures as our business grows from year to year. We have noticed an increase in interest from our employees in our sustainability efforts, which is quite encouraging. It’s always fantastic when employee/partners drive change! 

How have your short term and long term goals changed since we last spoke? 

Our company crusade is “To change the way America eats fruits and vegetables.” That has not changed. As we reached an important business milestone in 2012 – our 50th Anniversary – we continue to inform, educate and inspire people about the abundance of sustainable fresh produce available through retail promotions, social media and via our vibrant fresh produce industry. We continue to forge strong relationships with sustainable growers and food suppliers within our region, and continue to streamline our facility with energy and resource conservation practices.

We have also increased our efforts in educating produce retailers about correct product handling to reduce waste. In fact, we have found that many of our clients’ produce staff is eager for specialty produce training and our Frieda’s Produce University® program has grown exponentially over the past four years. In addition, in 2012 we launched a new promotion called Love Your Produce Manager®, in which we further our educational efforts for produce staff while also shining the spotlight on exemplary customer service in the produce department. Actually, Love your Produce Manager® is now listed in Chase’s Book of Events and will take place on April 2, 2013!

Do retailers relate to female food businesses owners any differently than they do male food business owners?

In the past few years, we have noticed that retailers have begun to recognize that since women are the majority of the decision makers for purchases (they are the shoppers), it only makes sense to work more closely with women suppliers and to have women in positions of leadership.

What are the benefits of being a female business owner in the food industry? What are the challenges?

One of the biggest benefits is that women have traditionally been the food shoppers in the family, so we have an innate sense of how women, mothers, and so on, shop for food and many of the things they value. As a female business owner, I find that I can display my “passion” for our products and mission much more freely than my male counterparts. It’s refreshing to be recognized as a “force” in the food business, as evidenced by the growing influence of the Network of Executive Women (NEW), which has grown exponentially in the last few years. The biggest challenge: being able to find balance between my work and personal time.

How have women changed the food industry? And why is this important?

My mother, Frieda Rapoport Caplan, our founder, really paved the way for women in the produce industry, being the first woman to own a wholesale produce company in the United States. In January, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the United Fresh Produce Association for her major role in the produce industry and where we are today, as well as owning and running a successful business. Frieda became well-known for introducing many once-rare produce items to U.S. supermarket, including Kiwifruit, Spaghetti Squash, Donut Peaches, Habanero Peppers and many others. At the United Fresh event, at which Frieda was honored, and for the weeks preceding the event, Frieda was deluged with emails and letters from people in the produce industry who have admired her from near and far, telling us that she changed and inspired them! Many say that Frieda was really one of the first U.S. suppliers of specialty fruits and vegetables to produce retailers back in the 1960s. Her pioneering efforts in produce had ripple effects across the entire food industry, including the boom of California cuisine in the 1980s.

Frieda’s daughters – Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan Wiggins – who now own and operate Frieda’s, Inc., continue Frieda’s legacy of innovation and continue to stay open-minded about new and unusual fruits and vegetables.