It was tough selling such "exotic produce." The only outlets at that time were a few adventurous retailers who wanted to distance themselves from their competition, and to better meet their shoppers' needs, or those who served communities heavily populated with ethnic groupsmainly Hispanic, Indian and Filipinowho recognized these foods as common to their culture. It was also in 1962 that the company, presently known as Frieda's Inc., opened its doors.
We were very lucky. Other produce operators, both locally and nationally, were only interested in high volume items such as oranges, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, and strawberries. Fortunately for us, they did not hear opportunity knocking on their door. During the last few years, they have heard that knocking loud and clear and competition is now intense to discover, promote, and sell specialty fruits and vegetables and complementary items. This is a real plus for retailers and shoppers.
But in the late 1960s, when some of these specialty items did take off, as a result of our unique merchandising and marketing efforts, we became known, as trend settersmuch to our surprise. We didn't realize that what we were doing, marketing wise, had never been done before in the produce industry. Frankly, we were just trying to find ways to move the products that we, as a new produce company, had an opportunity to market.
They were right, "everyone has to eat" but no one ever said that shoppers would consider eating jicama, spaghetti squash, elephant garlic, Sugar Snap Peasreg., dried tomatoes, or even kiwifruit! You see, I started a produce business featuring specialty fruits and vegetables.
Early in 1962, the management of the Southern Pacific Railway, which at that time owned the Los Angeles wholesale produce market, suddenly had space available to lease! They were the ones that requested that I go into business for myself, even though they knew I had no funds and no experience running a business. These Southern Pacific Railway people told me they had watched me build fresh mushrooms into a high volume item over the previous five years for my several employers! Looking at it as an opportunity that would benefit their ownership of the Los Angeles produce market, they literally, in a ten day period, pushed me into my own business.
I thought they were real risk takers, but they insisted that I was destined to be a success. As I look back, these men were my first real mentors. They took a lot of extra steps to make my entry into this male-dominated and male-controlled industry relatively painless.
In addition to their support, I also started with a solid partnership already in place with the mushrooms growers of Southern California. This small network of mushroom growers minimized my risk of failure in a most unusual way. Knowing I had no funds to start a business, they agreed to consign their mushrooms to me. I didn't have to pay the growers until the mushrooms were sold and, the money collected. So, between the managers of the produce market and the mushroom growers and most important an incredibly supportive husbandyou see by that time we had two small daughters (Karen was 61/2 and Jackie would soon be 4)I was launched on a career path in a business totally dominated by men!
So, on a Monday morning, the first week of April in 1962, we opened our doors with purple signs announcing the birth of a new produce enterprise, I literally started with nothing financially except grower support, plus encouragement from my father. He took me to his local bank and arranged for me to get a loan of $10,000 which in 1962 was a lot of money. When we left the bank he counseled me, "pay it back as quickly as possible, Frieda, so that you will have good credit standing should the need ever arise." The loan was paid back in four months!
The California mushroom growers didn't back me because they thought I was a nice young lady. They urged me to go into business because they needed help! The Taiwanese mushroom growers were invading the United States canned mushroom market. These California growers saw our new firm as an important vehicle for saving their industry. To survive, these growers had to expand the market for fresh mushrooms! They could no longer look to canning as an important outlet. They literally forced our new firm to do innovative thinking, to take a little known fresh specialty itemwhich mushrooms were at that timeand make them a must in supermarkets. Today, fresh mushrooms are amongst the ten top sellers in produce departments across the United States and Canada, a category that is very profitable for everyone concerned: retailers, growers, and wholesalers. We're proud we had a hand in this marketing achievement. The current media has overlooked the fact that before they dubbed me as the "queen of kiwifruit," early press coverage always referred to me as "the mushroom lady."
Because of the mushroom growers' need, we became first and foremost a merchandising/marketing organization. This was a totally new concept within the framework of the wholesale produce industry which up to that time just bought and sold produce as a commodity on a day to day basis. For Frieda's, Inc., mushrooms were just the beginning.
We first learned of the "Chinese gooseberry" shortly after we opened our business. The local Safeway buyer asked if we had ever heard of this fruit. A shopper in one of their stores who had visited New Zealand was looking for it. Well, we had never seen or heard of them. Two months later, when a produce broker mentioned he was offering a new fruit from New Zealand called "Chinese gooseberries," we immediately agreed to take all he had! After all, we knew we had that one customer. The broker was overwhelmed because everyone else he had approached on the wholesale market turned him down. They were only interested in high volume established items. So we had no qualms about bringing in the first 2400 lb of Chinese gooseberries which actually took us four months to sell. We quickly learned we had too much fruit for that one customer.
Soon after receiving our load of chinese gooseberries, we suggested to the New Zealand growers that they change the name of this egg-shaped/brown delicacy to kiwifruit, as it resembled so closely their national bird. They did, and the rest, of course, is marketing history. Not only does New Zealand credit Frieda's with introducing kiwifruit worldwide (we made the first sale of their fruit to Japan), but we are also given recognition for helping to launch the California kiwifruit industry in 1967.
Our willingness to accept the broker's offering of kiwifruit confirmed the reputation we had already earned at the time of being willing to try anything new. The men on the Los Angeles produce market had identified us as the only company around who would listen to small farmers with lesser known produce items such as limes, shallots, Jerusalem artichokes (which we eventually renamed and marketed as "sunchokes"), horseradish, papayas, pineapples, avocadosall considered specialties in 1962. Actually, our greatest source of new produce items at that time were the men on the produce market, too busy selling high volume produce to see the potential of these low volume items.
Karen is now president of Frieda's, Inc. With her exceptional administrative talents, which I knew was something I didn't possess, Karen took an already successful marketing organization doing between $10 and $11 million dollars a year in gross revenue and built it in a few short years into the 7th largest women-run business in Southern California, currently grossing $25 million annually.
Karen became my mentor during this leadership transfer. She was astute enough to recognize that I needed to expand my vision if I was to continue to be effective in the growth of Frieda's. One of her first steps was to enroll both of us in a course at UCLA taking companies from the entrepreneurial mode into the corporate environment. As I look back, I realize Karen didn't need to take this course but it was her way to make sure that I continued to grow and to become an effective support system.
Karen has been an equally effective mentor to her younger sister Jackie now vice-president of Frieda's. Recognizing her exceptional sales skills, Jackie has been given the responsibility of developing and expanding our sales program and personally servicing our major national accounts.
In July of last year, we left our 44,000 square foot distribution center in downtown Los Angeles and moved to Los Alamitos in Orange county to a facility nearly twice the size. We currently operate 24 hours a day, 51/2 days a week, with a staff of just over 100 men and women. We service supermarkets through out the United States and Canada and in recent years, started selling internationally. Because of Karen's foresight, we have also developed a mail order business which finally this year may turn a profit!
In 1965, when we renamed and introduced Sunchokesreg. as the first consumer package with recipes and descriptive information many of our retail clients laughed at us and said such a package wouldn't be accepted by their shoppers. They told us their shoppers wanted everything in bulk. When they learned that sales increased 600% for this item in the first two months after it's introduction, many of these retailers stopped laughing and started buying. This gave us a great deal of credability in the industry as an innovator although we developed this package trying to solve a bottom line problem for a customer: how to reduce his shrink at store level, enhance the shelf life of the product, and differentiate it from ginger, which visually it so closely resembled.
Suddenly, the food trend highway was becoming paved and widened and a lot smoother. It allowed usthrough packaging or labelingin the late 1960s to introduce and get acceptance for cocktail avocados, elephant garlic, feijoas, sugar cane batons, and the stunning, but slightly tangy, tamarillo which now, nearly 30 years later is just becoming an "in" fruit/vegetable (depending how you use it). Another burst of laughter greeted our introduction of hot house cucumbers. "Who in their right mind would pay the difference?" said growers and sellers of field grown cukes. They quickly learned that a whole new set of consumers developed, people who would eat cucumbers for the first time because they were burpless.
By the early 1970s, we hadn't as yet earned the support of chefs, who in years to come were to be stars of the food trend scene. However, some of the more advanced retailers and forward looking food media began to give us ideas and acquaint us with sources of new items. They supported our development efforts, the retailers with ads and the media with newspaper or magazine stories. Items like our field-ripened blackeyed peas, tofu, jicama, and fresh herbs came to us through these avenues.
Soon growers, nurserymen, seed companies, foreign embassies, trade commissions, and university farm advisors started to offer us unusual items: spaghetti squash, Asian pears, shiitake mushrooms, red bananas. One of our biggest triumphs was in 1979, when we worked hand-in-glove with Calvin Lamborn of the Gallatin Seed Company who had, after 25 years, developed the Sugar Snap Peareg.. That marketing introduction took close to 10 years before it began to fly off produce stands.
And it was just about this time that we lucked out and met Noel Vietmeyer who had a dramatic impact on our business and set us on a new, more focused path. He made us aware of the abundance of underexploited produce just waiting for a market, items like the winged bean and quinoa, which are both still getting established, and taro root, which is much further along in market acceptance.
Back in 1972, when someone from our printing company mentioned that there was space available on the back side of one of our packages, it gave us an idea! That's when we added a paragraph inviting shoppers to write to us for more recipes. And write they did and write they still do. Since 1972, we've received well over a quarter of a million such letters. We hear from 300-500 consumers each week who tell us what Frieda items they bought and where they bought it. In response, we send attractive recipe brochures which go out within two to three working days. Requests for nutritional information or dietary needs are answered within 7 working days. If we receive a complaint, legitimate or not, we issue a full retail refund, plus postage, and often send a package of our dried starfruit or another one of our popular packaged items! Of course, we've also heard from every Frieda in the United States, wanting to know if the Frieda on the label is a real person.
In the early 1980s, I was invited to addresss a large gathering of the nation's top food media at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention in Chicago, after which a real bonding took place with Frieda's. At the end of each year, thereafter, we would regularly get phone callsand still doasking us what's hot or new for the coming year. We take great pains to be very credible when we reply because we know that publicity can be very self fulfilling. If the chefs believe the press, they begin to feature the items on their menu and then retailers stock the products on their stands. This is why we feel we have had such success with the yellow finnish potato, dried red and yellow `Roma' tomatoes, Kiwanosreg. (the African horned melon), kabocha squash, our incredibly eye-catching and super-delicious donut peaches (the peento peach), purple potatoes, and our fresh and dried habanero chiles, which when introduced in May of 1990, is given credit by many for launching the current hot chile craze.
Does making our produce and complementary items known to millions of consumers take a budget of a Sunkist or a Procter & Gamble? For Frieda's this is not really the case. For more than 33 years, our company has been courted by the media, and we find it has been a very successful and rewarding courtship. It blossomed full blown in the mid 1970s when the news gatherers began to recognize that fresh fruits and vegetables were newsworthy. Because the men on the produce market were scared to death of talking to the media, they would say, "go see Frieda, she will be glad to talk to you." I was never considered shy! That led to a two-year stint on the local ABC-TV outlet, where I appeared once a week on the eyewitness news, filmed on the market, promoting fresh produce of all types, not necessarily specialty produce. I was called the green grocer, until Joe Carcione threatened to sue ABC for using an identification he felt he owned.
Because of the nature of our particular produce business, we always have new items to talk about. Therefore, the media considers us a constant source of news. But what also continues to make us of interest to the press is that we are a women-owned and women-run company. The press seems to pay us special attention because they perceive Karen and Jackie as successful daughters of a successful mother, and believe me, it's not hard to take advantage of such a perception. When it comes to building a business you learn to use every advantage you can.
We were telemarketing long before the term was ever coined. For the first 12 years, I was the national sales staff, but I never had to make a sales call. Retailers called us as there was no other produce operation in this country recognized as a source of specialty produce. Then, in the early 1980s, competition began to surface. So we developed a team of sales people that telephoned clients and potential clients across the United States and Canada, selling and promoting our marketing program.
We realize that we can't just keep pace with consumer attitudes, but have to continue setting the trends. That is an important part of what makes Frieda's of interest to the media, but more importantly, to retailing decision makers. The fresh produce department is now recognized as the most profitable in the supermarket, so much so that many retailers are currently remodeling stores, giving produce a very prominent position, to enhance their image with their shoppers.
We seek the new, the untried and we are willing to risk failure. That's the attitude at Frieda's and that is our strategy for today and tomorrow. We operate with an open door and with open minds! And along the food trend highway, we have an awful lot of fun!
The food trend superhighway is now fully developed and flashy bill boards are on both sides of the road. If you look closely you will see the once-lowly cactus pear taking center stage around the world as 14 different countries join together in a professional organization to promote and develop both the fruit and it's pad, the nopalitos.
And as futurists, who can possibly overcome your food prejudices, you may have seen the article published last March in an edition of the Wall Street Journal which featured a story on the front page entitled "if you are what you eat, this story is food for thought," subtitled, "health restaurants in Asia prescribe dishes for ills." It was a story worthy of our attention. Although eating scorpians and snakes may not be our way of overcoming stress, we will watch what is going on in Hong Kong, because it certainly appears to be their cup of teaa cup of tea we just might be sharing along the food trend superhighway in the not too distant future.