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Who was the Kiwi Queen Who Revolutionized the American Produce Aisles?

Chinese gooseberry is more popularly known as the kiwifruit. It was first popularized back in the 12th Century during the Song Dynasty. Its cultivation began in the early 20th Century when it fastly spread from China to New Zealand. But who was the Kiwi Queen who made it famous in American produce aisles?

In a male-dominated industry during the 1960s in America, Frieda Caplan, a mother, and a wife, successfully pioneered in a world of produce when Chinese gooseberry was not almost unheard of. 

Who Was Frieda Caplan?

On August 10, 1923, Frieda Rapoport Caplan was born in downtown Los Angeles, California, to her parents, Solomon and Rose Yanowa Rapoport, Jewish Russian immigrants. Caplan was raised and grew up in Highland Park.

Caplan’s father was a pattern cutter, working in a clothing manufacturer business, while her mother was a homemaker. She attended school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She graduated with two degrees, one in Economics and another in Political Science.

Because of her degrees, Caplan landed an office job for an attorney who was the head of the CIO political action committee in Los Angeles.

At age 28, in 1951, she got married to a labor consultant and a president of Longshoreman’s union, Albert Hale Caplan, and had their first child, Karen Caplan, after four years of being married. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

How Did Caplan Get Into The Produce Business?

Being a new mother who breastfed her child, Caplan wanted to have a job with flexible working hours. Since her husband’s family was running a produce house, they hired her as a bookkeeper even when she lacked experience with bookkeeping and produce knowledge.

Her husband’s uncle and aunt, who managed the produce house, went for a vacation, and she was asked to be in charge of the market floor and fill in as cashier. 

During this time in the 1950s, the produce aisles carried a very limited selection of produce. Most of the mushrooms being sold were the white button mushroom and were not looking nor interested in the brown mushroom.

That was when Caplan thought of promoting the unsold portobello mushrooms. With her persistence in selling the brown mushroom, one of their customers agreed to buy and wanted to use them for a Thanksgiving ad, but his order was massive, and their produce house did not have enough to fill in.

Caplan tried calling everyone she could to meet the client’s order, but they also did not have anything to give Caplan. She did not give up looking until she saw workers on a local mushroom farm packing these brown mushrooms. She helped them and finally could fill in enough to provide for the client’s needs.

Caplan then realized her excellent marketing skills and interest in interacting with people. During her training, she began to work more on the marketing floor until she decided to start her own business, which focused on the overlooked food products with the encouragement of the market’s landlord, Southern Pacific Railroad.

Caplan’s father co-signed her loan from the bank to start her business. She started selling a few items and soon became the go-to distributor of unfamiliar products. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

How Did She Become The Kiwi Queen?

In the 1960s, one importer asked if she carried the Chinese gooseberries he encountered during his trip to New Zealand. Out of everyone he approached and offered to, it was only Caplan to say yes to him.

The fruit brought to her market looked unattractive and slowly moving in the market. Caplan renamed the fruit to kiwifruit, which she thinks sounded more appealing to customers. Kiwifruit took around a decade to become popular in the market. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

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