Great Greens: Father, Son Turn Factory into Food Op

Chip Harriford, (right) manager of operations of Royal Greens, and his son, Scott, show off a freshly planted seed tray of lettuces in front of the 176,000-square-foot Charm building in Ridgeway where they will soon open to the public what will become the national headquarters of a wholesale/retail hydroponic growing operation.

RIDGEWAY –

A hydroponic growing business, Royal Greens, is setting up shop in downtown Ridgeway where it will soon headquarter a national wholesale company supplying greens and other organically grown vegetables to the likes of US Foods, Sysco and Whole Foods.

Director of Operations Chip Harriford, 52, said the hydroponic and, later, aquaponic components of the business will fill the inside of the 176,000-square-foot Charm building by next October. The grounds surrounding the building will be covered in raised-bed gardens, butterfly gardens, bee hives, chickens, and a 500-foot length of wall of the building will be covered in a vertical garden of seasonal flowering plants. Harriford said he also hopes to incorporate local artwork and yard art on the grounds among the plants.

While Royal Greens is mainly geared toward wholesale customers, it will also offer retail sales to the local public.

“Customers can purchase live lettuces, kale and other greens including 15 types of romaine and 20 types of basil,” Harriford said. “We’ve already planted 30,000 heads of lettuce and will offer over 60 varieties of lettuce when we open in March. The company will eventually offer beans, tomatoes, peppers, hens’ eggs and a variety of flowering plants.”

Harriford said an equally important offering is the economic development component of the business: jobs for people in the community – lots of jobs.

“We’re now hiring about 20 employees. We’ll hire 100 by the end of the year and 500 within five years,” Harriford said.

Plus, he said, the company is committed to providing a living wage with the lowest wage jobs starting at $12 an hour and going up to $18.

“We hope that people working here will also support businesses in Ridgeway and the surrounding communities. It’s a win-win,” he said.

Another plus for the community, Harriford said, is the business’ sustainability.

“We’re about as sustainable as we can be and that keeps prices low for customers. Nothing in the local offerings will cost more than $1 per pound, except for specially picked items that are $1.25 per pound. We incorporate numerous environmentally friendly features, like 300-gallon rooftop rain barrels to catch water for the business. And of course, as we add businesses across the country we plan to reclaim old, abandoned buildings, like this one,” he said, surveying the cavernous interior of the Charm building, “instead of building new ones.”

While Royal Greens will not be offering boat ride tours of the hydroponic facility like those at the popular ‘The Land’ hydroponic exhibit at Epcot in Disneyworld, it will offer walking tours through the facility for shoppers and tourists alike.

“It’s a great way for visitors to see people working in a hydroponic garden and to learn about the process. Our goal is to not be just a commercial facility but also an educational resource for the community,” Harriford said.

Harriford, a Columbia businessman, and his son, Scott, have been creating the Royal Greens company over the last few years, and while it’s a family business at heart, they are also poised to become a major commercial player.

It all started, Harriford said, when Scott, now 21, began studying hydroponics in 2010, as part of a high school research project, and quickly realized it as an excellent business idea. To get a feel for the different aspects of a produce supply business, he spent time working at a variety of places, such as Rosewood Market and City Roots, a 3-acre family run urban farm in Columbia.

At the time, Chip Harriford was the Chief Operating Officer of NDR Energy Group, a Charlotte-based company, and had previously worked as a business consultant for companies that worked with renewable energy.

“I knew absolutely nothing about hydroponics,” Harriford said. “But Scott convinced me, and he and I developed a business plan.”

They tried a few different avenues before attending an EngenuitySC business meeting in Columbia, a monthly gathering of entrepreneurs and tech people.

“That’s where I met Dr. Simon Hudson, a professor of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management at USC,” Harriford said, “and he’s been a wonderful mentor to us.”

Through their connection with Dr. Hudson, they were able to work with graduate and undergraduate classroom teams in USC’s Colleges of Business and Information Technology, which helped the Harrifords organize an overall business model, an agri-tourism component and a social media strategy.

“The students worked with us, produced an end product, and got a grade for it. We were able to put a lot of other people’s brain power together,” said Harriford, who has a bachelor’s degree in Economics and an MBA from USC. Scott will graduate in December from USC’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

Harriford then secured funding from a venture capital group in Florida where he worked with investors Garry Merritt and Steve Nelson. Those and other investors, including a tribe of Delaware Native Americans in Oklahoma, initially settled on a building in the Poconos, but Harriford wasn’t thrilled with the cold, rainy weather they encountered during the inspection. He asked if he could try finding a better place for the company, and the investors agreed, as long as he could secure a suitable location within two weeks.

So Harriford opened his rolodex, and the first call he made was to Fairfield County realtor George McCutcheon, with whom he’d worked years before. McCutcheon connected Harriford with the Charm building in Ridgeway, which had been abandoned for 20 years but was in good condition.

“I was already familiar with the area so I went to the Ridgeway Town Council and they worked very rapidly to help us,” Harriford said. “Within 10 days, they convinced our investors that Fairfield County and Ridgeway were worth the gamble. So a decision was made, checks were written, and 30,000 heads of lettuce have already been planted! We had to get started quickly to meet our supplier deadlines.”

Harriford said he will be working through economic development issues with Fairfield County and the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce over the next few months.

Royal Greens is currently leasing the Charm building and hopes to make it a permanent home. It will soon function as the headquarters and training center for an expected 20 additional facilities – each over 100,000 square feet – that will be developed over the next five years, beginning with locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Florida.

“We use the same business strategy that Amazon does, which is to place facilities near our customers and significantly reduce transportation costs,” he said. “Our produce is delivered within 8 hours of harvest, and stays within a 200-mile radius. We do sell to restaurants and small stores, but our primary focus is the big boys – national wholesalers and regional distributors who can buy by the truckload. We’re close, we’re flexible, we can grow exactly what they want, we can promise delivery and they can come see us at any time – plus, we know that we have the best prices!”

Harriford said that a big part of building a successful business is creating a place that enhances the community and brings people together.

“We’ve got good people around us, and we’re in a good place,” Harriford said. “The building and the community of Ridgeway are great. We’re very happy here.”

 

Royal Greens is hosting a Grand Opening for the public on March 19 at its location in the Charm building at 200 E. Church St. Harriford promises a wonderland of organically grown lettuce greens – over 60 varieties – and a day of fun for the community. For more information email [email protected]