How Modmarket became the latest success story in the Front Range’s fast-casual incubator.
Anthony Pigliacampo has been inside more McDonald’s outlets than he’d like to admit. He’s toured kitchens in China, Japan, Australia, and throughout the United States. Yet, to find what he believed to be one of the dirtiest McDonald’s in the world, Pigliacampo merely had to drive from his home in Boulder to the corner of 16th and Champa in downtown Denver.
That’s where, a few years ago, he found what he still refers to as among “the grossest” Golden Arches he’d ever seen. Its front windowpanes didn’t meet, so wintry gusts chilled the store. Its policy of unlimited soda refills made its dining room a popular haunt for the homeless. The loitering problem got so bad that the city, curiously, began piping classical music through speakers mounted outside the building in order to shoo away the lingerers.
On a brisk morning this past fall, the Beethoven is still playing, but the McDonald’s is gone. Wrapped along the windows whose panes still don’t quite meet in the middle is a graphic showing a sleek, modern dining room. It’s an advertisement for everything the former tenant wasn’t—and a peek into what might just be the future of casual dining.
By February 2014, the space will house Colorado’s seventh Modmarket, a farm-fresh restaurant chain started by Pigliacampo and his partner, Rob McColgan. An eighth will soon follow in Highlands Ranch, an embodiment of the Front Range’s status as the home of the “fast-casual” culinary movement. The term describes something between fast food and fine dining: You order and pay at the counter and watch while the food is made. Subway started it. Chipotle perfected it. Modmarket and others want to take it one step further. “Colorado is where a lot of these brands emerge and grow,” says Darren Tristano, the executive vice president of food industry research firm Technomic. “When it comes to fast casual, Denver is an incubator city.”
Almost a decade ago Pigliacampo, a mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder, was working for Ideo, an industrial design firm. “I would be designing some needleless vaccine injection devices,” he says, “and then, suddenly, I’m working on random consumer products, like toilet brushes for Procter & Gamble or breast pumps for Novartis.” One endeavor involved globe-trotting to different cities and visiting McDonald’s franchises. (He can’t divulge the specific nature of the ongoing Ideo project.) “Just flying to a foreign city and driving straight to the nearest fast-food restaurant is a really odd way to see the world,” says Pigliacampo, who was astounded to realize what a cultural export American fast food had become, particularly in China. “There are lines of people waiting to get Big Macs,” he says. “The stores are 6,000-square-foot palaces with three floors.”
A svelte distance runner who worked on multiple products at Ideo designed to address type 2 diabetes, Pigliacampo was amazed at the size of the Chinese urbanites. “Two-thirds were obese or on their way,” he says. It was clear China was embracing popular American eating habits that would come at the expense of good health. “Our next great export after fast food was going to be all the ways to treat obesity,” he says, “and we were going to make a fortune on both.”
Pigliacampo left Ideo in 2005 to start his own design business with a partner; he sold it about two years later. The modest windfall helped him cultivate a new idea: All that travel had convinced him something was missing from the American casual dining scene. Although he often ate at Whole Foods, he realized it wasn’t business appropriate because, he says, “You can’t take clients out to lunch to a grocery store.” That got him thinking: What if you could have Whole Foods quality with McDonald’s efficiency?
He called an old friend, Rob McColgan, whom he’d known since high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. McColgan had landed at Goldman Sachs, and although he was making “so much effin’ money” on Wall Street, Pigliacampo says, McColgan shared his friend’s entrepreneurial inclinations. That neither of them had any restaurant experience didn’t matter. “We didn’t know jack about the business,” Pigliacampo says, “so I figured we could contribute equally.”
The two started researching the restaurant industry and found that while “fast casual” commanded less than 10 percent of the industry’s revenue, it was its fastest-growing segment. So with his wife’s blessing, McColgan quit his job, and he and Pigliacampo figured out where to launch their concept. Their list of possible cities quickly narrowed to one. McColgan had visited Pigliacampo during the latter’s time at CU Boulder. “I started to realize that the first time I had Chipotle was when I was visiting Anthony,” McColgan says. “The first time I had Noodles [& Company], too.”