Back in 2008, Rob McColgan was a Wall Street guy who couldn’t cook.
A decade later, he opened his 29th restaurant location on the campus of his alma mater.
The story of how McColgan went from the finance world to the fast-casual dining scene began when his childhood buddy Anthony Pigliacampo, a food services consultant for IDEO, approached him with a startup idea.
“What kind of place do we want to eat at every day?” was one of the questions the pair asked themselves. They set out to create an eatery that offers healthy, locally sourced fare with the convenience and price point of fast food but dining experience of a sit-down restaurant.
“A lot of people start a restaurant because they love cooking, but they don’t understand the business end,” said McColgan. “What I have found is that restaurants are not any harder than any other business. It’s about understanding your product and guests, and adapting and changing, and always trying to get better. Those principles apply to whatever you want to do.”
McColgan and Pigliacampo selected Boulder, Colorado, as the place to launch their affordable, from-scratch, farm-fresh dining concept. They entered Mendoza’s 2009 McCloskey Business Plan Competition, winning $25,000, which became part of their seed money. They called their restaurant Modmarket, which became Modern Market in 2015.
“Colorado certainly offered a lot in the way of lifestyle, with all of the outdoor activities, but the biggest business reason had to do with a trend we noticed,” said McColgan. “The Front Range has generated a lot of cool restaurant concepts in the last 20 years.”
The Front Range Urban Corridor — an oblong region located along the eastern face of the southern Rocky Mountains that includes Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and other notable cities — is considered the perfect test market. It includes a diverse demographic and political cross-section of America. And the diversity is reflected in the residents’ eating habits.
“If something works in the Front Range, it’s easier to say that it can work in other areas,” said McColgan. “That can’t be said of New York City or L.A. Those have very specific tastes. Colorado is a flyover state, but it has everything in one spot.”
From build-your-own salads and pizza, the menu expanded to include soups, sandwiches, bowls and a variety of breakfast items. McColgan said they quickly learned to hire people who know what they’re doing in the kitchen, which allowed them to get better and more sophisticated with techniques and ingredients. Some locations now offer upscale items such as truffled potato pizza and a curried salmon bowl. Many serve beer and wine.
Now, on any given school day, the lunchtime line starts forming in front of the Duncan Student Center location well before noon. The décor is a mix of a contemporary farmer’s market with industrial touches, such as steel and natural wood surfaces. There are steady orders for the personal pizzas, which, like the soups, salads, sandwiches and other menu items, are made from scratch using whole ingredients. The menu offers some options to satisfy dietary requirements from gluten-free to vegan.
They currently employ more than 700 workers in 29 restaurants, which are spread out over Arizona, Colorado, Maryland and Texas. They also have license agreements with three partnership stores — two in the Denver airport and the one in the Duncan Student Center.
In retrospect, what advice would McColgan give? “If I were to do anything differently, it would be to work in a restaurant for at least six months before opening my first Modern Market.”
But deeper than that, he said, don’t be afraid to take a chance.
“One of our best attributes is to not be afraid to change and adapt the concept,” he said. It’s allowed us to get better and be where we are today. If we had been afraid of change, I don’t think the first restaurant would have lasted a year.”
“A surprising part of our story is that you never know where you are going to end up in your career,” added McColgan, who, for the record, now loves to cook. “To think that you’re going to end up doing what you’re studying in school is to put yourself in a box. I wanted to be on Wall Street. Frankly, I loved it. But to be open to change was the best decision I could have made.”