Behind the Purple Door : After 25 Years as the Grand Dame of Unusual Produce, Frieda Caplan Introduces Three More Vegetables to Los Angeles

Betsy Balsley is The Times' food editor.

Purple potatoes? Coral-colored mushrooms? Horned melons? Are you really ready for foods like these? One of Los Angeles' better-known food professionals has made a name for herself--and built a sizable bank account--by gambling on your willingness not only to try, but to repeatedly buy such exotic produce.

Frieda Caplan is brash and ebullient--and an almost nonstop talker. All of those are traits that have benefited her during the years she has been successful in an industry that even today is male-dominated.

Caplan's Los Angeles-based multimillion-dollar produce business, Frieda's Finest / Produce Specialties Inc., sells exotic edibles to supermarket produce buyers all over the country.

It's thanks to Caplan that kiwi fruit is a relatively common item. The popularity of other exotic and semi-exotic produce--spaghetti squash, sunchokes, shiitake mushrooms and jicama--can also be largely attributed to her marketing acumen.

Next week Caplan celebrates the 25th anniversary of the day she borrowed $10,000 from her father to invade a man's world and become a produce wholesaler at Los Angeles' old 7th Street market--a gamble that continues to pay off. She has taken chances on produce items that few other wholesalers would dare to merchandise, mainly because she trusts her instincts. "I get a gut reaction," she says. "I tell Karen (her daughter) I can feel it in my elbow."

She is also a born promoter. "My nature is to promote," she says. "I'm fairly verbal, and when the press would try to find someone in the produce market to talk to, the other wholesalers would send them to me. It sort of snowballed."

But along with talking to anyone and everyone, Caplan also listened. And that may well be the secret of her company's growth.

When she'd place new items--wrapped in her distinctive purple packaging--in markets, consumers would write asking for advice on how to use the unusual produce, and sometimes they'd pass along useful suggestions.

"I couldn't rely on produce clerks to know how to handle our specialties," she says, "so we printed sample recipes on the packages telling people how to use the product."

Caplan, who is almost always characterized as a colorful character, is literally surrounded by the color purple. Her trademarks-- bright purple packages of wild mushrooms and shallots and other out-of-the-ordinary foods--are readily visible in market produce sections. The paper for Caplan's newsletter (issued to tell produce buyers what's available) is purple. Her produce warehouse is trimmed in purple. Her company logo is purple.

"The color was an accident," she laughs. "I had 10 days to go into business when Southern Pacific gave me the opportunity to take over some doors at the old 7th Street wholesale market." (A door is a wholesale space at the market.)

With the loan from her father, "I took over three doors and realized I needed signs on them. On Friday, we told a painter we needed signs for our Sunday opening.

"It turned out that purple was the only paint the painter had enough of in his garage at the time. It was a stroke of luck."

Frieda Caplan actually started in the produce business in 1956, working in the accounting department of the Giumarra Brothers Fruit Co., which was managed by her husband's uncle and aunt. But it wasn't long before she moved into sales. She sold one commodity only--mushrooms.

"It was just the beginning. I realized when I went into business for myself in 1962 that you couldn't get by on just one product." In a matter of weeks she had been approached to sell chives and Jerusalem artichokes by a small farmer named Frank Araki. Eventually she was to give the artichokes a new name, sunchokes, and become a force behind establishing them nationwide.

Not too long after branching out into these new commodities, she hired fellow wholesaler Sam Levinson. "He knew more about the business than anyone I had met," Caplan says. "Sam had contacts it would have taken me 30 years to make.

"Things happened . . . quickly. Not long after we opened, a Safeway buyer asked us about Chinese gooseberries, but we didn't handle them. Six months later a broker representing New Zealand interests saw the 'Produce Specialties' sign and asked if we'd be interested in selling Chinese gooseberries. That's how I first got involved with Chinese gooseberries, known now as kiwi fruit. Slowly we began to get kiwi into produce counters across this country, but it wasn't until 1980 that the product really took off.

"I like to call it our 18-year overnight success story," Caplan says with a laugh. "But as I think back, I can't believe all the terrific items that were placed almost accidentally with me."

Not everything Caplan has handled has been a success. "We came up with fruit-flavored fortune cookies," she says, "an item that was 10 years ahead of its time. Now they are really taking off at gourmet food shows across the country. At the time we introduced them, however, it turned out that the only people who bought them fed them to their dogs, who apparently adored them.

"Another loser was dyed walnuts--in two colors--that we called 'fun nuts.' We thought they would be great for the holidays. Unfortunately no one else did."

Her successes are far more notable than her failures, however. And the quantity of produce she ships out of her warehouse is astounding. "Today, about the only type of mushroom I don't handle is the one that I started out with--the California button mushroom," Caplan says. "We handle 12 varieties and expect to be on line with two more--the coral-oyster and morning-glory-oyster mushrooms--shortly. I turned down oyster mushrooms for years because they didn't have the shelf life required to ship. But our new coral oyster has a long shelf life we can't believe."

Coral oyster mushrooms with their delicate pink tones are one thing, but does Caplan really think that purple potatoes will become a hot item at the produce counter? "Absolutely," declares this eternal optimist. "They're fun, and they taste like potatoes. They just look different."

That they do. In tests at The Times, the potatoes retained their deep purple color when French fried and when baked. To say that their appearance is startling is an understatement, but the flavor is excellent. Consumers will be able to discover this for themselves next September when the potatoes become available.

After 25 years of promoting and selling produce, there seems that to be only one thing this accomplished entrepreneur doesn't do: Frieda Caplan can't cook.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°