bannerFranchisor Stories

Inside The Visionary Evolution of Modern Market Eatery

The fast-casual concept has gone through an impressive journey from an idea conceived between two friends to a burgeoning franchise aiming to change how we perceive and consume fast food.

The original concept behind Modern Market Eatery, the fast-casual restaurant franchise based in Colorado, was fairly simple: Make real food the new standard of fast-casual dining. In the 15 years since its founding, Modern Market’s journey has included creating a made-from-scratch menu, launching a nationwide franchise program, joining an 800-unit parent company, introducing a drive-thru location and more. Now, looking to the rest of 2024 and beyond, the brand shows no signs of slowing down.

Modern Market co-founder Rob McColgan spoke with 1851 Franchise to outline the history of the brand and his vision for the future. 

The Genesis of a Modern Culinary Movement

The inception of Modern Market is a tale of two worlds converging. McColgan, a former Goldman Sachs wealth manager with an impressive career in finance, sought to redefine the fast-food paradigm alongside his high school friend and eventual co-founder, Anthony Pigliacampo.

“We had always talked about collaborating on a project together, but it had to be something we were passionate about personally,” said McColgan. “Anthony consulted for major restaurant companies, and we often discussed the stark contrast between the U.S. fast-food culture and dining experiences abroad. We frequently dined at local, healthy bistros and cafes, leading us to ponder: What would our ideal everyday restaurant look like?"

Eventually, this collaborative idea crystallized into the first Modern Market in Boulder, Colorado, in 2009. McColgan's background in wealth management and trading infused the brand with a unique perspective, setting the stage for “a new era in fast-casual dining” by focusing on efficiency, scalability and the unyielding pursuit of quality.

“We don’t come from traditional restaurant experience, which has allowed us to really reinvent the whole concept from the ground up,” said McColgan.

A Distinctive Approach to Fast-Casual

From Day One, it was clear Modern Market aimed to become a disruptor in the fast-casual sector. Without the typical restaurant background, the founders weren’t bogged down by the ways things were supposed to be done, leading McColgan to ask the question: Who says you couldn't marry the convenience of quick-service with the ethos of scratch-made, sustainable cooking?

“With our busy schedules, we craved a dining option that was healthy and made with clean ingredients, and one that made us feel good post-meal,” McColgan said. “As athletes, we viewed food as fuel, necessitating both exceptional taste and a diverse menu.”

Although the brand's menu features a wide array of options from salads and pizzas to bowls and sandwiches, Modern Market also set out to build a uniquely value-engineered model to ensure this commitment to quantity and quality wouldn’t raise operational costs. The strategic use of core ingredients across multiple menu items, for example, and the careful structuring of the overall menu played a crucial role in keeping costs manageable. 

"We deliver plant-based options and scratch-made, sustainable food," McColgan said. “By working directly with some of the best suppliers in the world, we are able to deliver these products to our restaurants anywhere in the country at competitive prices.”

McColgan's innovative approach also extended to kitchen operations, where a double-sided production line — rare in the fast-casual space — and the ability to thrive in spaces as compact as 2,000 square feet underscored the brand's efficiency. 

“We needed a solution that could handle our diverse menu without compromising the dine-in experience, and our current system achieves this with exceptional throughput,” McColgan said. “Our streamlined kitchen model enables us to create a broad menu with made-to-order dishes that deploy in three to five minutes. Staff are also trained in multiple areas of the kitchen, which keeps labor costs down.”

Adapting and Innovating 

Of course, the Modern Market journey was not without its challenges. Like most restaurants, the COVID-19 pandemic tested the resilience of the brand, prompting a strategic pivot towards delivery, digital ordering and a refined growth strategy. 

“We leaned heavily into delivery and digital ordering,” said McColgan. “Modern life makes eating out or ordering online a necessity. This shift towards online transactions has fundamentally transformed our business model and it allowed us to really focus on our growth trajectory. Today, we have a tech stack on par with the most sophisticated retailers and are miles ahead of the largest restaurant brands.” 

With a proven model in place, Modern Market officially launched its franchising program in 2021, signing its first franchise agreement for 41 units with Thrive Restaurant Group, who happen to be major Applebee’s operators. 

"The pandemic highlighted the resilience of our model and the untapped potential of franchising,” McColgan said. “It was an opportunity to distill what worked best and how to scale it effectively.

Another major moment in the Modern Market story came when parent company Modern Restaurant Concepts acquired fast-casual brand Qdoba. This makes Modern Market an emerging franchise with the buying power of an 800-unit chain — a rare blend that provides franchise partners with better pricing and logistics for accessing top-of-the-line equipment and food costs. 

This efficiency even facilitated the introduction of a drive-thru model, with Modern Market opening its first-ever drive-thru location in Colorado Springs late last year. 

“This is really a feature unique to our brand given the quality and variety of our food — not many fast-casual brands can match our throughput in a traditional drive-thru model,” said McColgan. “Looking ahead, not all our locations will feature a drive-thru, but where it's viable, we're equipped to execute it effectively."

Vision for the Future: Expansion and Evolution

Today, Modern Market Eatery has grown to over 31 locations around the country. Looking ahead, McColgan is ambitious yet strategic, aiming to open between 7 and 10 restaurants this year, with a long-term goal of nationwide expansion through franchising. 

“In terms of our broader strategy, we aim to fully embrace the franchise model,” said McColgan. “We want to partner with passionate and experienced restaurant operators who believe in our brand and recognize our leading position in this category.”

And there is a lot to be excited about — the 21 company-owned Modern Market locations open for the calendar year of 2023 saw an impressive AUV of $2.3 million, according to the brand’s most recent franchise disclosure document, with the initial investment range between $728,500 and $1,468,750.

“At the end of the day, Modern Market Eatery has navigated through periods of significant change, innovation and challenge, but that's only made us stronger,” said McColgan. “We are always finding new ways to refine our model and expand our concept, staying true to our core ethos of providing healthy, sustainable and delicious food options. We are very excited to see what the future holds.”

For more information on franchising with Modern Market Eatery, visit: