Modmarkets design features an open kitchen
Modmarket's design features an open kitchen.

Modmarket grows in healthful fast-casual niche

Modmarket emphasizes simple, whole ingredients — locally grown or organic, when possible — all freshly cooked in house.

Anthony Pigliacampo believes the scalability of a quick-service restaurant model can be applied to a healthful concept.

His evidence: Modmarket, a fast-casual restaurant he designed to offer simple, whole ingredients — locally grown or organic, when possible, and all freshly cooked in house.

The first Modmarket restaurant opened in Boulder, Colo., in 2009, and the chain now has four units in the state. Pigliacampo, co-chief executive of the fast-casual chain, and business partner Rob McColgan expect to reach seven units by the end of the year. They're also planning another six restaurants for 2014, including units in new markets that could include Phoenix or Dallas. Private investors and the concept’s own capital currently fund growth.

The three-daypart restaurants are averaging more than $2 million in sales per year in roughly 2,500- to 3,000-square feet, and Pigliacampo feels he has found a sweet spot with a $11-per-person check average and a focus on health that doesn’t chase trendy buzzwords.

Pigliacampo discussed Modmarket and its growth with Nation’s Restaurant News.

How did you develop the concept?

We started by asking, ‘What is healthy?’ We wanted to create food you could eat every day. You could probably find places with lower-calorie dishes, but my feeling was most people wanted to eat food that tasted really good and would not make them worse off, and might actually make them better off.

The Rocket Egg Sandwich is featured on Modmarket's frequently changing menu.

We started with a menu of salads with grilled proteins on them. We created salads that were approachable but more chef-designed, not like a typical salad bar. I was thinking, ‘How can I get my dad to eat a salad?’ And the solution was grilled steak served hot on top of a salad. Then we added brick-oven pizzas. We realized pizza had a really bad rep, but you can make healthy pizza that tastes really good. We used a whole-grain dough and cooked it in the brick oven, more of a Neapolitan-style, gourmand, finer-dining pizza.

Then, because we had that great brick oven, and had these great proteins, we started making sandwiches as well. We partnered with a local bakery and found bread they made simply with salt, yeast, flour and water. We made these sinful, delicious sandwiches in the brick oven, making a more artisan sandwich than what typically goes through a conveyor oven.

Then we started offering our great proteins as homestyle plates with two sides. That has been a really interesting thing for us, because if you look at the fast-casual space, so much is a derivative of the burger or sandwich. You don’t see entrée plates, but that’s more like how you’d cook at home.

And the menu is always changing?

We have all those things, but not a lot of options within each category. They change all the time based on what’s available or in season. If beef prices go up, we can focus on other options. We use digital menu boards because the menu is always changing.

You’re not necessarily saying all organic, all local. You’re saying ‘as available.’

We’re very up-front about ingredients. We would love to have more organic items, but most people don’t want to pay $15 for a salad. We would rather serve a lot more $8-$9 salads for more people than $16 salads.

Our view is to be completely transparent about what we do. On our website, you can get information about ingredients and where they are sourced. We also put nutrition info everywhere possible: on the menu boards, on the receipt after you order and pay, on the website.

Service, design and growth

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Do you serve beer and wine?

Yes. We’re known for our $2 glass of wine, following the European model. We want to offer a glass of wine for about the same price as a soda.

What is the service style at Modmarket?

Guests order at the counter and people get a buzzer. When the buzzer goes off, you go up to an elevated expo area and grab your tray.

No food runners?

We experimented with food runners early on, but the restaurants were so busy, if you have a hot pizza and there’s no one available to deliver it to the table, it’s not as hot. But if it’s their fault because they didn’t get it when the buzzer goes off, they can’t blame you.

Did you design the atmosphere to be more premium than typical fast-casual restaurants?

I always felt food lagged behind other retail concepts in terms of being relevant for what consumers wanted. You can get an iPod at Best Buy, but it’s much cooler to go to the Apple store.  I think Starbucks does that really well, versus Dunkin’ Donuts.

By putting more thought into the design of the restaurant, we wanted people to be pleasantly surprised when they first walk in. That tells a lot of the story of our brand. People automatically assume that we’re going to have higher quality food here. We don’t have to hang posters on the wall touting what we do because it’s visually obvious. They see the wide-open kitchen; they see meat coming off the grill that gets cut right in front of them. [There are] marble counters; we use real plates and silverware, real glasses. It feels very upscale, but you’re only spending $7 to $10 on a meal. It feels like an affordable luxury.

What are your plans for future growth?

We’re planning on ramping up quite a bit. Our goal was always to have a large restaurant company, never to have just a handful of restaurants. We’re planning at least six stores next year. Beyond that, I could throw out numbers, but I like to say if we execute on what we have right now, we’ll accelerate. If we don’t execute, we’ll go slower.

Are you considering franchising?

We’re not looking at that right now. We’d like to retain control for the time being.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] [7].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout [8]