Great Business Ideas: Import Something New and Different

Great Ideas for your Small Business:

Import Something New and Different

A new industry was spawned forty years ago by a homely fruit then known as the Chinese gooseberry. The palm-sized brown fuzzballs, now called “kiwis,” were the basis for Frieda Caplan’s wildly successful exotic-produce business.

Before Frieda Caplan began importing fruit and vegetables from around the world, apples, bananas, and oranges were about the only fruits Americans ate. You can now thank Caplan for alfalfa sprouts, macadamia nuts, sugar snap peas, spaghetti squash, and dried blueberries. Frieda’s Inc. also popularized the succulent, oversized mushrooms called portobellos that sell for up to $7.50 a pound.

Frieda’s Inc. brokers about 450 fruits and vegetables from growers around the world. Their number-one seller is jicama, a crunchy root that can be eaten raw with a splash of lime juice.

Caplan began introducing Americans to taste bud tingling delicacies in 1962. She started the company with a $10,000 bank loan—an enormous amount of money at that time. The vegetable growers welcomed her willingness to distribute their novel produce and helped finance some of her initial start-up costs.

A few years ago, daughters Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan-Wiggins joined their mother’s business, which has about forty employees. Karen, who joined the family firm in 1986, said she pushed to expand the business. Today about 30 percent of their produce is imported, with the rest grown around the United States.

Importing produce doesn’t seem like such a revolutionary concept, but twenty years ago, most grocery store produce departments featured fewer than 100 items. Today the average market stocks about 300—thanks in part to Frieda Caplan’s vision.

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In addition to offering offbeat fruits and vegetables, Frieda’s Inc. has set itself apart from the competition through its use of a distinctive signature purple color in packaging and advertising.

“When mom started, she needed a sign for the store,” recalled Karen Caplan. “She had to have it up over the week- end. The guy who painted the sign only had one color in his truck—lavender.

Now it’s our trademarked purple. It becomes like subliminal advertising. When I show up places, people say things like, ‘I really expected to see you in a purple suit.’” Caplan’s employees sign their letters with purple ink.

The produce boxes are purple, too. “A unique design is OK,” said Caplan. “But color is especially effective.” Caplan said when she learned to relinquish control and hire more salespeople, sales quickly increased. The company has also moved into the modern age with a website that receives hundred of hits a day