By Published: June 1, 2014

Modmarket entryway

At Modern Market’s helm, Anthony Pigliacampo savors his success as an innovative restauranteur.

When Anthony Pigliacampo (MechEngr’02) opened the doors to Modern Market Eatery, his health-focused eatery, the one-time engineer knew he had a hit restaurant concept.

Tired of a lack of healthy fast food options, Pigliacampo’s Modern Market concept in Boulder eschewed preservatives and artificial sweeteners in favor of dishes made from scratch featuring simple, natural ingredients, including a variety of organic and locally sourced options. It dished out salads, pizzas, sandwiches and soups.

“There was never a doubt in my mind Modmarket would work,” Pigliacampo, 34, says. “Never.”

Anthony Pigliacampo

Owner Anthony Pigliacampo (MechEngr’02)

That blind confidence would strike many as odd, particularly as Pigliacampo held no previous restaurant experience and was, after all, an engineer, not a chef. After graduating from CU-Boulder in 2002, Pigliacampo ventured to Silicon Valley where he enjoyed a three-year stint with celebrated innovation and design firm IDEO. There he tackled projects around the customer experience, eventually landing on a team working with McDonald’s. For Pigliacampo, it was a fascinating first touchpoint with the restaurant industry and an experience that planted the seeds of Modern Market.

“I remember thinking right then, ‘What if there was a company as well run as McDonald’s pushing healthy food to the masses?’” Pigliacampo says.

That spark of an idea, however, would simmer for nearly five years as he collected new experiences, including founding his own company, Venture Design Works, after leaving IDEO in 2005.

Running his own design consultancy proved to be a rich adventure. While creating active lifestyle products later sold in stores like REI, such as a water bottle with an integrated energy gel dispenser and a coffee press that fit inside a Nalgene water bottle, Pigliacampo also learned the ins-and-outs of launching and leading a company.

The question for us was never if the concept would work but rather how we could make it better.

In 2008 he finally acquiesced to the restaurant industry’s hearty tug. He sold Venture Design Works, reconnected with high school friend Rob McColgan and began plotting Modern Market, a fast casual eatery that would embrace farm-to-table principles and dishes made from scratch. They captured $25,000 in a business plan competition and raised startup capital amid the depths of the recession.

“The opportunity for us was so obvious and others saw it, too,” Pigliacampo says.

Of course, the duo then had to decide where they would open their first restaurant. For Pigliacampo, a native Pennsylvanian, Boulder was the easy choice given the city’s demographics and lifestyle as well as the restaurant industry talent found in nearby Denver, a hotbed for growing chains. McColgan agreed.

In September 2009, Modern Market opened its doors at the Twenty Ninth Street Mall — a spot Pigliacampo lived about a half-mile from while attending CU — and welcomed guests into a modern environment more Apple Store than Applebee’s. Its industrial modern design reflects the company’s innovative approach to everything from menu to service, including changing expectations of what a $10 meal can be. Food is served on ceramic plates with glasses and real silverware.

The company moved to its new Denver headquarters in May.

Modmarket breakfast

Modern Market’s breakfast above features cage-free eggs, Creminelli prosciutto, mixed greens and toast.

“Everybody thought we belonged on Pearl Street, but we believed wholeheartedly in the concept’s promise regardless of where it was located,” says Pigliacampo who eats there daily.

His favorite dish, the Farmer Salad, includes roasted chicken, feta, almonds, corn and red grapes.

Pigliacampo began applying engineering ideology to the restaurant, namely lean manufacturing principles. He worked to match kitchen output and capacity with customer demand. He also examined ways to enhance Modern Market’s operations, customer experience and menu. In one particularly savvy move, Modern Market began printing nutritional information on receipts with a transparency that resonated with the restaurant’s conscientious diners.

“The question for us was never if the concept would work but rather how we could make it better,” Pigliacampo says. “Day one was version 1.0. Then we tweaked things for version 1.1, 1.2 and so on.”

Those ongoing tweaks soon produced results, recognition and expansion.

By the end of 2013, Modern Market had six restaurants across Colorado and leading restaurant publication Nation’s Restaurant News named the upstart chain one of its five “Hot Concepts,” an annual honor recognizing innovative concepts demonstrating high growth potential. Some of the award’s previous winners include brands now known throughout the U.S., such as Noodles & Company, Smashburger and Fogo de Chão.

“What Modmarket has done so well is find that balance of high-quality, chef-driven food that’s accessible and a good value,” says Nation’s Restaurant News editor-in-chief Sarah Lockyer. “And what you see in [Pigliacampo], in particular, is someone who approaches the restaurant in a measured, yet genuine way.”

As energized and passionate as he was on day one, he looks to pen Modmarket’s next chapter.

The chain, which currently has nine Colorado-based restaurants and one in Dallas, will have 13 stores by the end of this year and at least two dozen by the end of 2015. Long-term, Pigliacampo hopes to establish Modern Market as a national brand.

“The beautiful thing about having that goal is that the bigger we get, the more good we’re doing,” Pigliacampo says. “We have a sustainable supply chain and create above-market rate jobs, with $9.50 being the average wage, so every increment we grow results in more positive things happening for those we touch. That’s a rewarding feeling.

Photography courtesy Anthony Pigliacampo