The origin story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos has long been attributed to janitor turned executive turned motivational speaker and author Richard Montañez. But now people are starting to question the authenticity of that claim after the Los Angeles Times investigated his story and found that he allegedly isn’t the creator of the mega-popular snack. Montañez is the focus of an upcoming biopic directed by Eva Longoria about his rise as the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, a billion-dollar snack, after working as a janitor for Frito-Lay. The story goes that he took the unflavored puffs home and added the spices common in Mexican street corn including chili powder and took the idea to Frito-Lay executives. After it launched nationwide in 1992 he was promoted to vice president of multicultural sales & community promotions for PepsiCo (which owns Frito Lay). Now Frito-Lay released a statement to the LA Times calling his story an “urban legend”:
“None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay wrote in a statement to the Times. “We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market. That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend.”
In response to the LA Times article and Frito-Lay’s statement, Montañez said he was a long-time supporter of the brand but it wasn’t necessarily reciprocated: “I was their greatest ambassador,” Montañez told Variety of Frito-Lay. “But I will say this, you’re going to love your company more than they will ever love you, keep that in perspective.”
“Nobody was telling me, ‘This is how executives work.’ I wasn’t a supervisor, I was the least of the least,” Montañez added. “I think that might be one of the reasons why they don’t have any documentation on me. Why would they?”
According to the Times, Lynne Greenfeld, a junior employee at Frito-Lay’s corporate office in Texas, was assigned to develop the Flamin’ Hot brand in 1989. The publication reports that she came up with the name, and helped bring the product to markets nationwide. She contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 after hearing Montañez’s story which led to an internal investigation that concluded with the allegation that Montañez is not the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
“We value Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers, but we do not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products to him,” Frito-Lay said in a statement to the Times.
Some in the Latinx community took to social to voice their disappointment while others continue to support Montañez, claiming the LA Times story is an attempt to discredit the massive success of a Latino. Radio personality and Lil Libros Founder Patty Rodriguez wrote on Twitter in response to the article: “All this story does is tell us that management failed to tell Greenfeld that a Mexican-American with a hairnet working the floor had been knocking on their offices with an idea to engage the Latino consumer.”
Writer Yolanda Machado echoed the distrust in the story writing on Twitter, “And I don’t believe them.
They ‘let him’ make soooooo much money, over and over, for 20 years! There isn’t a brand in the world that wouldn’t have sued him. Also, the reporter didn’t talk to any Latino workers at Frito-Lay. Clearly, this story is one sided. White.” Writer and activist Julissa Arce tweeted in his defense saying it was not just an attack on him but on Latinx success: “When our stories are amazing no one can believe them, so they spend a year trying to break it apart. It’s not enough to beat the odds. So while a brown man is taken down, a white man writes one story and everyone immediately believes him?,” she wrote. “I stand with Richard.”
For the record: What’s most upsetting to me about Richard Montañez not being the inventor of Hot Cheetos is that LA Times committed a business journalist for more than a year to take down a local Latino hero when there’s so much more corruption to be investigated. #bagofchips
— Memo Torres (@el_tragon_de_LA) May 17, 2021
We all know as Latinos is so hard for us to reach an executive level. Do we really hate ourselves this much that we cannot even believe that we can be part of something bigger?
— Patty Rodriguez (@pattyrodriguez) May 16, 2021
Montañez explained to Variety that because of his position as janitor the process of the development of Hot Cheetos didn’t really include him and he didn’t document much, which he regrets. Variety reported that the film is still moving forward and that producers are aware of the controversy. Montañez has also written two books based on his life: A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie, and Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive
“I think that [the film is] going to inspire people to do the right thing. Don’t make the mistake Montañez made. Document everything,” Montañez told Variety. “The story isn’t really about Hot Cheetos. The story is about overcoming adversity and racial discrimination.”
Update, May 17:
NPR reporter and host of podcast Planet Money (which reported on his success story) Sarah Aida Gonzalez shared a Twitter thread about their coverage and said that Frito-Lay told her: “Al Carey and Jim Rich attended a meeting at the Rancho Cucamonga plant during which Richard Montañez and two other individuals presented several products developed for Latino consumers, including cinnamon and spicy popcorn, and spicy Cheetos.” She also tweeted “Before we published, Frito-Lay also confirmed that “a Richard Montañez product” was developed in the Cucamonga plant in Southern California. See the following two statements from Frito-Lay on 5/7/2021.”
Update, May 21:
PepsiCo released the following statement:
A great deal has been recently discussed about the origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The information we shared with the media has been misconstrued by some, which resulted in confusion around where we stand, a range of emotions among our employees and consumers and a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montañez and the Latino community.
The sincere truth is, at PepsiCo, we believe in the strength and power of teams, and we attribute the launch and success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez.
Far from being an urban legend, Richard had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today. His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. To be clear, we have no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders.
We also know there was a separate division team developing a spicy product offering for Cheetos and other snack brands that were tested in market and found their way into permanent products on store shelves, including Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Different work streams tackling the same product without interacting occasionally occurred in the past when divisions operated independently and were not the best at communicating. However, just because we can’t draw a clear link between them, doesn’t mean we don’t embrace all of their contributions and ingenuity, including Richard’s.
Richard is an important part of PepsiCo’s history and the success of the company. He is an inspiration and his story cannot be belittled. We regret the confusion that has come from the recent speculation, but most importantly want Richard to know he is valued and cared for among PepsiCo’s employees and we only wish him happiness and success.