Turning 60

This week is very special for me and my family, as on Saturday, April 2, Frieda’s officially turns 60! Yes, it was 60 years ago that my mom Frieda opened her doors on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.

My sister Jackie and I were still little, but we sure remember mom getting up every morning around 1 a.m. to get ready for work, stopping in our shared bedroom to kiss us goodbye each and every morning.

We had no clue that 60 years ago it was quite unusual for a woman to own a business, let alone to drive to downtown Los Angeles at 2 a.m. to go to work. That’s just what she did.

Before she launched her own company, she started as a bookkeeper at Giumarra Brothers on the market. She took a special interest in a stack of fresh brown mushrooms that no one seemed to pay attention to. These special fungi would help to launch her career in sales! (Fun side note: When my sister Jackie was born, she was nicknamed “the mushroom baby”, as mom was pregnant with Jackie when she started selling mushrooms and visiting local mushroom farms.)

Frieda stood out as a woman on the market, as it was almost 100% men who worked there during that era. But, with her open-minded attitude, she stood out additionally because she would talk with every farmer, buyer, newspaper writer, or political candidate who braved the early morning hours of the L.A. Market. (I remember her telling me one afternoon in June of 1968 that candidate for President Robert F. Kennedy walked the produce market that morning, campaigning. She got his autograph. Later that week he was assassinated!)

When she launched her own company in 1962, she was given a new nickname “The Queen of Kiwi”, as she was the first to distribute and market kiwifruit into the United States. She actually is credited with changing the name of kiwifruit from its previous name, the Chinese gooseberry.

For the last 60 years, our company has been known for innovation.

Frieda’s has been an innovator of products (we have had a hand in introducing more than 200 new fruits and veggies to American shoppers). Did you know we represented growers and were the first to market: spaghetti squash, shallots, alfalfa sprouts, hothouse cucumbers, habanero chili peppers, Stokes Purple ® sweet potatoes, Asian pears … and the list goes on and on.

Frieda’s also became known for our innovation in packaging—my mom put the first label on a produce item (spaghetti squash). Frieda’s was the first to pack produce in an overwrap tray (Sunchokes®), as it extended the shelf life, plus it eliminated the confusion with fresh ginger root. And, we were the first company to put recipes on our packages! Fun fact: My mom did not know how to cook (I learned to cook at age 8). Perhaps because she did not know how to cook, she was able to tap into consumer sentiment and understand that consumers were much more likely to try something new if you show them how to enjoy it.

Frieda’s was considered the first brand in produce (with the exception of “Sunkist” stamping their name on oranges—no one else did that!). Our original brand was “Frieda’s Finest”, which we changed to “Frieda’s” in 1990 when Jackie and I bought the company from our parents.

As I reflect on how the produce business has changed in the last 60 years, I’m struck by how many things have really remained the same:

  • The produce industry is hard. It is a complex business and has many moving parts. Ask any farmer!
  • It’s a relationship business—people do business with people they like and trust. If someone wants to do business with you, they will find a way to make it happen. If someone does not want to do business with you, they will find reasons to not make it happen.
  • Building your business takes time—there are no overnight successes. Kiwifruit took 18 years to start to catch on—and to this day, growing the business takes hard work and time.
  • Taste wins! Except for bitter melon (which has medicinal qualities but an almost unpalatable bitterness), a good-tasting produce item is part of the winning strategy when selling fresh. Have a good-tasting product, a decent shelf-life, and plentiful supply—that is the trifecta.
  • Timing helps—kiwifruit was the first new fruit to be introduced in North America (in 1962) since the banana (in the 1870s). We still find there is an almost insatiable demand for new and good-tasting, healthy, fresh produce. Hmmm … guess that’s why we get asked, “What will be the next kiwifruit!?”

If mom were still alive, she would be amazed to see how far we’ve come, yet how many things have remained the same.

And she would have loved our latest, original 60th anniversary cake recipe! Check it out! Our Pink Lemon Cake with Popjoys® Kumquat Zest, topped with a Stokes Purple® sweet potato frosting, is absolutely delicious!

Me, my daughter Alex, and my sister/ business partner Jackie, at our company anniversary celebration this week.

And so we say: Happy Anniversary! Just thinking about my mom, and how she broke through the glass ceiling of produce while changing the way America eats, brings a happy tear to my eye.

Karen