Just like all fast-food chains, Chipotle sells sameness. Uniformity of expectations. Every store from Denver to Dallas serves up the same fajita burrito and the same hip, urban-minimalist aesthetic: steel tabletops, wood chairs and funky artwork.
The consistency of design is the work of one man: Loveland-based sculptor Bruce Gueswel.
Gueswel met Chipotle founder Steve Ells through his wife, Cyndi, who was Ells's college roommate, and has been involved with Chipotle since the first store opened on Evans Avenue. "We had quite a bit in common when we first met," Gueswel recalls. "Before the first store opened, we went out to San Francisco together to look at furniture and brainstorm. Then I just took a bunch of industrial scrap and went home and started playing."
Since then, he has created more than 1,000 Mayan-art-inspired sculptures for Chipotle, as well as every chair and table in all 350 stores nationwide. "You lose track of how many you do, but I've really tried to stay fairly authentic and honest to the Mayan designers," he says. "It all depends on the space. Some stores have walls of glass, some have lots of space just begging for stuff. We customize each store."
To manage that volume, Gueswel has gone from building the first chairs with Ells to employing five people to turn out about 350 chairs per month from his 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Loveland. "Chipotle has made it so that rather than working for somebody else, I have people working for me," Gueswel says. "We have a regular assembly line. It keeps me busy, but it also gives me time to do my work. I'm learning about delegating authority."
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Gueswel doesn't readily hype his Chipotle business, and most other artists know him for his steel and stone sculptures, not his collaboration with Ells. "I don't think that a lot of artists even know that he does the Chipotle work; he's primarily known for his other pieces," says John Kinkade, executive director of the National Sculptors' Guild and the Columbine Galleries, which has locations in Denver, Loveland and Santa Fe. "I've always been impressed with what Bruce does. He's innovative; he explores things from a lot of different directions."
Still, Gueswel gets several e-mails a week from people interested in buying his Chipotle sculptures, which he sells for between $350 and $900; in comparison, his personal works sell for as much as $30,000 apiece.
"The amount of people interested in contemporary sculpture is a very small percentage of the population," Gueswel says. "I couldn't do one without the other right now; they go hand-in-hand."