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A Dozen Who Shaped the 80s

California’s image as a pacesetter held up fairly well in the 1980s in the world of business and economics. Californians were a force for dramatic change.

Some achieved change on a grand scale--inspiring a revolution in economic policy or transforming corporate finance. Some of the change may seem minor, but it altered our daily routines and our life styles. Some business people built firms that are monuments to America’s spirit of enterprise; others brought companies to ruin and became symbols of corporate recklessness.

Here is a sampling of California residents who gave American business a 1980s makeover--making it better, or worse, or just more fun.

FRIEDA CAPLAN

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If you’re the kind of consumer who can’t live without carambola, have the hots for jicama and rave over radicchio, then you have Frieda Caplan to thank for widening your vegetable vistas.

Caplan got her start in 1962, pushing California brown mushrooms--then an exotic--in a tiny purple-trimmed stall at the old Seventh Street wholesale market in Los Angeles. That same year, she stumbled onto the Chinese gooseberry from New Zealand, dubbed it the Kiwi and launched it on an unsuspecting public.

Although it didn’t take off until 1980, today there’s a Kiwi on nearly every plate. And Frieda Caplan has become the mother of specialty produce, a pioneer who opened up market after market for new items in an era when overall demand for food leveled off as family size shrank.

At the same time, consumers became increasingly health-conscious and shoppers delighted in culinary one-upmanship--both trends that helped Caplan boost her blood oranges, black radishes and baby vegetables.

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“We have discovered that nothing is hard to sell if you properly describe it,” Caplan says. “It’s perception, and you have to build perception. Our No. 1 vegetable is jicama, and it’s our ugliest vegetable.”

Frieda’s Finest now distributes more than 400 exotic fruits, vegetables and food items; annual sales are expected to exceed $18 million. Her purple-packaged produce comes with instructions to help cushion culture shock.

And while Caplan hasn’t always guessed right (dyed walnuts and fruit-flavored fortune cookies are among her more notable flops), she has been canny enough to change the way our groceries are sold, cooked and consumed.


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