Making more with more

Modern Market’s Anthony Pigliacampo on using growth to support better food systems

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Rob McColgan (right) and Anthony Pigliacampo
Modern Market

Think of the things you take for granted in Boulder County. Have you ever been out driving or leaving the grocery store and stopped to look up at the Flatirons and realized, damn, that’s pretty? Have you ever been out on a run, lost in your own thoughts, only to realize that you’re, in fact, lost? Thanks for the miles of connected trails, Boulder County. Have you ever been away to visit friends and family and thought, holy hell, you guys are still drinking Miller Lite?

If you’ve had any of those moments, you’ve probably also taken Modern Market for granted. Fast Casual™, as it were, has become so in vogue that it’s hard to separate the good from the bad anymore. But do you ever stop to think that Boulder’s own Modern Market has expanded across the country at lightning speed, yet has retained a menu that tastes good, makes you feel good and doesn’t hurt the wallet?

It’s that exact feeling that Anthony Pigliacampo and Rob McColgan wanted to effect when they launched Modern Market (then Modmarket (long story)) in 2009.

“(Rob) and I felt that there weren’t any options for fast food … that wasn’t crazy expensive and that tasted really good,” Pigliacampo says. “We kept wanting it to be in the market. We said, ‘We’ll build it, and we know we’ll at least eat there.’

“We’ve grown a fair amount since then.”

That growth includes 28 restaurants across the country with two at Denver International Airport. For two guys with no experience in the food industry, Pigliacampo and McColgran created their first restaurants with the guest experience in mind, while relying on quality, local ingredients to carry the menu.

“Neither one of us had worked in a restaurant before,” Pigliacampo says. “When we first opened in Boulder, I would say we had a really good idea, and we didn’t know how to execute it. As time went on, we figured it out.”

What helped, Pigliacampo says, is launching in Boulder. “Most people in Boulder live fairly full lives and are eating out a lot,” he says, adding that dining options at the time included only sit-down meals that took up an hour or more, or sitting at the Whole Foods cafeteria. Both are fine choices, but there was an obvious void of places to get local, healthy food quickly, affordably and in a nice setting, which appealed to that busy Boulder crowd.

Now about that local, healthy food. Quality sourcing is what makes Modern Market work, but it presents a number of logistical challenges for the restaurant team, Pigliacampo says.     

“We were always buying whole ingredients, which aren’t challenging to get but you get a box of carrots, you have to figure out what to do with it,” he says, adding that as the chain has grown larger, figuring out what to do with every bit of every bit of produce requires months of planning.

“We make everything from scratch at the store; that’s a big challenge with the amount of food we make,” Pigliacampo says. “We’re still trial-and-erroring on that today. The cool thing about getting larger is more interesting things are available to us.”

One would assume that the larger a restaurant chain gets, the worse the service, food, atmosphere, etc. It’s a natural assumption: the people who poured their lives into the first restaurant aren’t able to oversee what goes on at every minute of every restaurant, so they lose touch about what made that first restaurant so successful. (And, note: Modern Market was sold this year to an equity firm specializing in “seed-to-fork” restaurants.)

But Modern Market claims to be different, and certainly there hasn’t been much change in the quality of their Boulder shop. Pigliacampo says the goal from day one has been to expand into other markets, and to use the leverage of growth to source higher quality ingredients while being able to keep prices low and wages of employees high. That effort is already paying dividends, Pigliacampo says, with the forthcoming launch of grass-fed beef in the Boulder location, which they’ve been trying to make work in their restaurants for years.

“I’ve always felt one of the reasons why higher quality food is so expensive is it has to get purchased in high quantities to get the price down,” Pigliacampo says. “Grass-fed beef… I don’t know anyone in Boulder who wouldn’t love to eat it; the reason I hear most people not doing that is because of the cost. Our ability to buy hundreds of thousands of pounds of beef a year… we can cut out middle men to buy in a way a single restaurant just can’t.”

That comes at the expense of higher profit margins. Pigliacampo says the money Modern Market would’ve saved by sticking with inferior food suppliers is now going to higher quality food sourcing and to giving employees livable wages. It also allows Modern Market to bring these high quality foods and practices to areas outside of Boulder County that don’t have the access to the repertoire of culinary offerings we enjoy.

“Most of those places don’t have access to the kind of food we offer,” Pigliacampo says. “We feel strongly about the meals we serve. If you have our (food), you know you’re supporting a supply chain.”

Part of the operations include a research and development test kitchen in Broomfield. There, Pigliacampo and company receive dozens of items every day from food suppliers. About 75 percent of the research done there is to improve recipes, Pigliacampo says.

“Great example: we have avocado toast that’s about to roll out,” he says. “We had been using a specific seasoning blend — an everything seasoning blend we had custom-made. We found another vendor to take another stab. So this morning we were eating three different versions. That one has more garlic, etc., so we’re literally going through that level of detail on items all the time.

“We buy enough stuff that even small changes are pretty complicated. We end up testing quite a bit.”

The culinary team is able to test different greens against one another, for instance, and test food from different regions to see how, say, chicken will taste in Modern Market’s Washington D.C. shops versus their Texas shops.

That constant testing extends to the eating habits of most of the people who work at Modern Market — Pigliacampo says he eats most of his meals there.

“We’re all incredibly passionate about it. It’s one thing that makes our restaurant company really unique. We all really care about the food,” he says. “We care about it being as good as possible. If you eat it all the time you tend to notice areas where it could be better.”