Feeding Frenzy

How Modmarket became the latest success story in the Front Range’s fast-casual incubator.

February 2014
The list goes on: Qdoba, Einstein Bros Bagels, Boston Market. Colorado now headquarters five of the 16 largest fast-casual concepts in the country. One analyst dubbed the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Broadway the national epicenter of the movement. On top of that, some of the largest fast-food chains often use the Front Range to test new products, such as when St. Louis–based Panera Bread opened an early drive-thru near Colorado Boulevard. 

Because people in Denver have been exposed to healthier, faster, cheaper food for longer than most other Americans, they’ve been “conditioned” to welcome the concept, according to Dan Fogarty, an executive vice president at Noodles & Company and one of Chipotle’s first marketing staffers. He recalls Dallas customers trying to make reservations at the first Chipotle there and wary Texans “splaying burritos like a frog” because they’d never seen one served in foil or eaten without silverware. But Denver diners no longer react with that kind of apprehension. It’s why the men who bought Boston Market left Illinois for Golden, why Chipotle founder Steve Ells migrated from California to open his first shop in Denver. And it’s why Pigliacampo and McColgan left New York. 

The first Modmarket opened in 2009 on Boulder’s hyper-competitive Twenty Ninth Street mall. Pigliacampo and McColgan weren’t sure how to plan their menu at first; they only knew they had to be OK with eating it three times a day, sometimes seven days a week. “The whole point of the Modmarket menu is, What do Rob and Anthony want to eat all the time?” McColgan says. “We’re part of the demographic we’re trying to cater to.” At first this meant just pizzas and salads. Then a few months after opening their first store, a blizzard dumped 10 inches of snow, making them realize they needed to add soup. Sandwiches came after that. “Had we been in any other market, we would have stopped at gluten-free dough,” Pigliacampo says. But because this was Boulder, they made sure their sauces were gluten-free, too. Like a lot of their decisions, it was one that would affect the greater Denver food ecosystem.

Though the chain has now expanded to Glendale, Greenwood Village, Lakewood, Cherry Hills, and Longmont, Modmarket still makes almost everything in-house, from scratch. The outliers are gluten-free dough, sourced from a local baker, and barbecue sauce for pizza. After a year of searching, Modmarket found a gluten-free, high-fructose-free sauce sweetened with agave that actually tastes good. (The concoction, along with the gluten-free dough, is now also used by numerous higher-end Denver restaurants.) 

Living in this fast-casual hub also benefits Modmarket’s hiring practices. When the duo had three stores and needed a new operations manager, they didn’t have to do a nationwide search; they simply plucked an executive who’d been running 150 Qdoba locations. Denver even has its own fast-casual social scene: Marketers from Smashburger (the fastest-growing fast-casual concept in the United States) and Mad Greens (11 locations and counting) organize monthly happy hours for all local fast-casual employees. 

Modmarket still can’t compare to Chipotle’s 1,500 locations on multiple continents, Smashburger’s incredible growth, or even the steady climb of Noodles & Company. But McColgan claims each Modmarket location can outperform its larger competitors in unit sales and profitability. Next on the to-do list, after the opening of the 16th Street Mall store, is expansion beyond the Front Range—a store in Dallas is slated to open this spring. And with a new contract in hand to open a location in February in DIA’s Terminal B, millions of travelers per year will soon be exposed to Modmarket. “If we don’t have a couple hundred units in 10 years, then we’ve really screwed up,” says Pigliacampo, who plans to market the contrast between their food—fresh, local, and gluten- and high-fructose-free—and that of their soon-to-be neighbor on the DIA concourse. As McColgan says, “There’s something so fitting about being next to McDonald’s.” 

—Photograph by Carmel Zucker