Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

City Roots Founder Eyes Expansion

Jan 01, 2017 08:29PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Teowonna Clifton

Photos Supplied By City Roots

Robbie McClam has been reinventing himself long before it became the buzz word it is today. He’s been a licensed professional architect, master planner and executive director for a South Carolina state agency, executive director of a development corporation, and a real estate developer. Today, he is an urban farmer, which he says is the most complex, yet rewards of all his professional endeavors.

McClam grew up in Lake City, S.C., where he worked alongside his cousins in the tobacco fields. That first job not only instilled in him the value of hard work, but also a love for agriculture. In fact, when he was in the latter part of his architecture education at Clemson University, he considered changing his major to horticulture. He decided to remain on the architecture track, but years later found a way to live his passion.

After several successful careers, McClam was able to “quasi-retire” in 2008. He was working with his brother part-time when his wife heard the story of Will Allen on NPR. Allen, a South Carolinian living in Milwaukee, had been awarded the MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grant’ for his work on urban farming and sustainable food production. When she shared the story with McClam, his interest in agriculture resurged. Shortly thereafter, he found himself on a flight to Milwaukee to learn more about Allen and his urban farm.

Within short order, McClam had signed up for a commercial agriculture program and was flying to Milwaukee once a month for five months. During that time, he got an understanding of Allen’s program, came back and began the process of City Roots.

The first step was acquiring the property. “Having been an architect, planner and developer, I knew what I needed in terms of land use,” McClam said. He wanted a location near his home, and knew the area had to be zoned for industrial use. He located property that met his criteria, but quickly found out that even though it was zoned appropriately, City of Columbia did not allow any type of farming within City limits. He believed in his idea and its benefits to the community so strongly that he decided to plead his case with the City.

With his background in development, McClam wasn’t afraid to take that challenge head-on. His efforts were successful.

“At that time, the idea of farming was becoming a more acceptable social activity,” McClam said. “I had to go through quite a few steps to get the zoning throughout the City changed so that farming could be allowed.”

McClam’s background in architecture also came in handy when he began to design the layout for his farm. He wanted the location of the barns and greenhouses to be as efficient as possible. But learning how to grow crops on an organic and commercial scale proved to be the challenge. For direction, he modeled his plan after Will Allen’s, so he wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

With the greenhouses and barns constructed, City Roots was ready to begin its production of microgreens, “shoots” of a parent vegetable that have been found to be more nutrient-rich and flavorful. Even so, McClam admits that he didn’t know where he was going as a business; it was just something that he enjoyed doing. Then his son, Eric, joined the team and the company and its niche in the community began to take shape.

“Eric came along and had the energy, vision and commitment to really grow the company into what it has become today,” Robbie says. A recent graduate of Tulane University, Eric saw City Roots as a resource for the community.

The local and sustainable food trend was growing across the country. Even though Columbia was a little behind the curve, the McClams saw this as a prime opportunity to introduce their microgreens to the community in a significant way. They began by establishing accounts with local restaurants that agreed to use their produce to prepare locally sustainable meals. This became the first step of their expansion plan.

The next step was entering Charleston’s restaurant market through a nonprofit called GrowFood Carolina, a “food hub” that takes produce from local farmers and distributes it to restaurants for a small fee.

The third step was establishing an account with Whole Foods, which proved to be perhaps the greatest growth for the City Roots’ brand. Through this creative venture, City Roots delivers its produce to a central Whole Foods location in Columbia. Whole Foods then delivers City Roots’ microgreens to some 38 stores throughout the Southeast. “So we only have to carry it two miles to their store and they distribute it to all their stores over a four-state region.”

With this expansion plan, City Roots’ revenue has grown each year. “But so have the expenses,” Robbie points out. To help curb those expenses, the McClams used a federal grant to partially fund the installation of solar panels earlier this year. Today, City Roots is on its way to becoming energy neutral.

But making major profits have never been one of McClam’s primary goals. When he established City Roots, before he had a clear vision of what the company could become, Robbie had a clear definition of success.

“My initial vision statement was to grow healthy, sustainably grown food, and provide jobs to as many people as we could for a living wage, and be a part of the community. And we have done that.”

In fact, Robbie doesn’t take a paycheck from the company. It all goes back into the company and to his employees and community.

As for the future, Robbie would like to continue expanding his farm. He has already added two additional properties. With those expansions, he’s been able to increase his production to nearly 75 different varieties of fruits and vegetables. He’d also like to see more of his produce on the menus of local restaurants and in school cafeterias.

Agritourism is also an area where Robbie expects more growth. Under Eric’s direction, City Roots has established a successful partnership with local schools that give students a first-hand view of where their food comes from. Alongside other local and conscientious entrepreneurs, he has helped establish farm-to-table programs, Harvest Dinners, and other food-related events. And more and more, the farm is being used as a scenic backdrop for weddings, parties, and special occasions. All of these not only add revenue, but further integrate City Roots into the community.

That’s what Robbie and Eric had in mind from the very beginning.