Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2021
For the last decade, Richard Montañez has been telling the story of how he invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The world has been eating it up.
It goes like this: He was working as a janitor at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant when he dreamed up a chile-covered Cheeto and believed in himself enough to call up the chief executive to pitch his spicy idea.
Corporate backstabbers tried to sabotage Montañez for stepping out of line, but he out-hustled them, driven by a hunger to succeed. Flamin’ Hots became a runaway hit, and Montañez rose through the ranks and became an icon.
Watching his many recorded speaking engagements, it’s easy to see why his story has taken off.
Montañez is a charismatic speaker, and his tale of a Mexican American underdog whose ingenuity conquered the corporate world is a rags-to-riches fable baked into the origin of a wildly popular snack.
Montañez has built a lucrative second career out of telling and selling this story, appearing at events for Target, Walmart, Harvard and USC, among others, and commanding fees of $10,000 to $50,000 per appearance.
His second memoir, “Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive,” is out in June from an imprint of Penguin Random House.
A biopic based on his life, to be directed by Eva Longoria and produced by Christian super-producer DeVon Franklin for Searchlight Pictures, is set to begin filming this summer. Both the book and the movie were sold after bidding wars — Montañez’s story is undeniably hot.
There’s just one problem: Montañez didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, according to interviews with more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, the archival record and Frito-Lay itself.
“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, in response to questions about an internal investigation whose existence has not been previously disclosed. “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,” the statement continued, “but the facts do not support the urban legend.”
Flamin’ Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence.
Montañez did live out a less Hollywood version of his story, ascending from a plant worker to a director focused on marketing. He also pitched new product initiatives, which may have changed the path of his career.
But Montañez began taking public credit for inventing Flamin’ Hots in the late 2000s, nearly two decades after they were invented. First, he talked about it in speeches at local business and philanthropy award ceremonies. Then the online media, hungry for a feel-good story, took his claims viral.
And nobody at Frito-Lay stopped him. Most of the original Flamin’ Hot team had retired by the 2000s, but the few who remained let the story spread unchecked.
Greenfeld contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 after first seeing that Montañez was taking credit for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, triggering a company investigation. That process unearthed evidence calling his account into question and led the company to the conclusion it shared with The Times: “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.”
The producers of his biopic, despite being informed of problems by Frito-Lay in 2019, announced a cast for the movie in early May.
The core of Montañez’s story rested on the pitch meeting that he says changed his life, where he sold his idea of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos directly to the Frito-Lay elite. In his new memoir, he lays out a dramatic scene, with more than 100 people, most of them “leading executives,” assembled alongside the CEO in a conference room at the Rancho Cucamonga complex to witness his presentation.
The Times spoke with 20 people who worked at the Frito-Lay divisions responsible for new product development 32 years ago, when Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were first extruded into existence. None recalls anything like the episode Montañez describes taking place.
The idea that grew into Flamin’ Hots didn’t come from Rancho Cucamonga, or California, or even Frito-Lay’s home base in Texas.
Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit. One of the earliest newspaper articles about the product corroborates that detail: A Frito-Lay spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in March 1992 that “our sales group in the northern United States asked for them.”
Fred Lindsay, a retired Frito-Lay salesman from the South Side of Chicago, feels that he can be more specific: “I’m the one that was responsible for getting us into Flamin’ Hot products.”
The late ’80s were a cutthroat time in corporate foodstuffs, and PepsiCo Inc., Frito-Lay’s parent company, was fighting a marketing war on three fronts. In its restaurant division, Pizza Hut was clawing its way into delivery to fend off Domino’s, and Taco Bell resorted to free soda refills to undercut the competition.
Pepsi’s beverage business was locked in the decadelong Cola War, with its flashy CEO, Roger Enrico, pouring millions into ad deals with Michael Jackson and Madonna to peel people away from King Coke.
The assignment to create spicy competitor products landed in the inbox of Sharon Owens, a product manager in the Single Serve group at the time. Unlike the mainline brands — Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos and Lays — whose managers were expected to serve as custodians of just one product, Single Serve was organized around a format: individually wrapped products made for cramped mini-marts and customers with just a few quarters to spend.
Owens recalls that she assigned the project to a new employee: Greenfeld.
Greenfeld, who now goes by her married name, Lemmel, said she’s “very proud” of leading the team that put Flamin’ Hots into the world, and for coming up with the Flamin’ Hot brand name.
“It is disappointing that 20 years later, someone who played no role in this project would begin to claim our experience as his own and then personally profit from it,” she added.
Hours after initial publication of this story, Montañez posted a video to his Instagram account, addressed to “all you young leaders.”
“I don’t care what room you’re in, there’s always somebody in the room that’s going to try to steal your destiny. They may even say you never existed,” Montañez says to the camera. “I want you to do this: Write down your history, because if you don’t, somebody else will. Remember that. And also remember this, the best way to destroy a positive message is to destroy the messenger. Never allow that to happen to you. I’m certainly not going to allow it to happen to me.”
The record of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos first entering the market in 1990 points to an impossibility at the heart of Montañez’s story all along.
In telling after telling, Montañez says he felt empowered to invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos after watching a motivational video from Enrico, the CEO of the company, that encouraged all Frito-Lay workers to “act like owners” and take charge of the business.
And time after time, he says that Enrico was the CEO whom he boldly called to pitch his idea and that Enrico flew out to Rancho Cucamonga weeks later to witness his pitch in person. In his new memoir, Montañez clearly restates this claim: Enrico’s name appears 60 times in the text.
But Enrico did not work at Frito-Lay when Flamin’ Hot products were developed. His move to Frito-Lay was announced in December 1990, and he took over control at the beginning of 1991 — nearly six months after Flamin’ Hots were already out in the test market.
When the Flamin’ Hot line first entered test markets in the summer of 1990, Robert Beeby was leading Frito-Lay. Wayne Calloway was running the parent company, PepsiCo. Enrico was the president and CEO of PepsiCo Worldwide Beverages, the separate soft drink division of PepsiCo, leading the company in the Cola Wars.
Enrico went on to lead PepsiCo as a whole by the end of the ’90s, and the first media mention of his “I Own the New Frito-Lay” campaign came in a May 1992 feature in Ad Day. He retired in 2001, and he died while snorkeling in the Cayman Islands in 2016. The Times found no public comments from him on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot product.
Patti Rueff, who worked as Enrico’s secretary for decades as he moved from the beverage business to Frito-Lay and on to the top of the parent company, vividly recalls Montañez calling her office to speak with Enrico — once he was already leading Frito-Lay, in 1992 or 1993, and after Flamin’ Hot products were already on shelves.
One other Frito-Lay executive played a key role in Montañez’s Flamin’ Hot story: Al Carey, a Frito-Lay lifer who worked at the company for nearly 40 years, rising through the executive suite to the top of the corporate pyramid.
Carey appears to be the only Frito-Lay executive who worked at the company at the time of Flamin’ Hot development to publicly endorse Montañez’s version of events over the years.
In 1990 Carey was working as vice president of national sales out of the Plano offices. When Enrico came in, he promoted Carey to oversee a new vending machine and warehouse division in early 1992, and then to division president of Frito-Lay West, based in the Bay Area, at the end of that year.
Carey became president and CEO of Frito-Lay North America in 2006. In 2007, Montañez began telling his story in public, and the pair have made joint appearances at a number of public events over the course of their careers.
Montañez writes in his new memoir that he met Carey in the late 1980s, when the exec was taking a tour of the Cucamonga plant. When Montañez later called him for advice on pitching his idea for spicy Cheetos, he says, Carey encouraged him to call Enrico directly.
In an interview, Carey, 69, initially said that he first met Montañez after becoming division president for Frito-Lay West in December 1992, and that Montañez pitched him a set of products targeted at the Latino market. When asked how that timeline fits with the 1990 Flamin’ Hot trademark and test market, Carey insisted that Montañez is the creator of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Beneath Montañez’s story about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, visible through its inconsistencies and supported by the documented timeline of events, there is a real story of a man rising up the corporate ladder, from factory floor to marketing executive, pitching some products along the way.
Montañez got a job at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga in the late 1970s. Although Montañez has at times said he was working as a janitor when he pitched Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Frito-Lay said its records show he was promoted to machinist operator by October 1977, shortly after his hiring. In that role, he writes in his new memoir, he spearheaded a program to reduce waste along the assembly line.
After Enrico moved to Frito-Lay and the motivational “I Own the New Frito-Lay” campaign rippled across the company, a single news clipping featuring Montañez provides a window into that moment in his career.
The U.S. News and World Report article from December 1993 focuses on businesses finding success by empowering their employees. The section on Frito-Lay talks about the plant in Rancho Cucamonga, where manager Steve Smith had taken up Enrico’s initiative and gotten more front-line workers thinking about how to improve the business as a whole.
“Veteran machine operator Richard Montañez, 37, became so energized by Smith’s new operating style that after listening to salesmen he developed a new ethnic-food concept aimed at the Hispanic market,” the reporter writes. “After testing recipes and outlining a marketing strategy, Montañez burst forth with a kernel of an idea: Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, which will soon make its debut.”
An industry news wire announced that Flamin’ Hot Popcorn did in fact hit shelves in March 1994, as an extension of the Flamin’ Hot line that Greenfeld and her colleagues had rolled out four years earlier.
Around that time, Montañez began working on a line of products pitched specifically at the Latino market in the Los Angeles area: Sabrositas. Images that Montañez has posted to his Instagram account show that the Sabrositas line included Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, two types of Fritos — Flamin’ Hot and Lime and Chile Corn Chips — and a Doritos variety billed as buñuelito-style tortilla chips.
Frito-Lay records shared with The Times show that Montañez was promoted to a quality-control tech services specialist from 1998 to 2002, then left the plant and rose to a director-level position. He received a number of accolades from both community groups and PepsiCo CEOs along the way.
He’s now retired in his early 60s, after a full career climbing the corporate ladder. Montañez made it, from rags to riches, from factory floor to corporate suite. He just didn’t make Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos became a cultural phenomenon in the 2000s. As early as 2005, school administrators considered banning them in the classroom because of their distracting popularity with students; Pasadena schools eventually prohibited them in 2012. Their first meme moment came in that same year, in a 2012 viral rap video, “Hot Cheetos and Takis,” a song written and performed by a group of kids as part of an after-school program in north Minneapolis. The years since have seen pop-up restaurants and fashion lines, and countless Instagram-ready Flamin’ Hot Cheetos menu items at restaurants across the country.
Montañez’s story of the janitor who had invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos picked up traction, serving as fodder for blog posts and online videos. Montañez’s own Instagram account accumulated tens of thousands of followers, and his TikTok following now tops 100,000.
After the investigation and his retirement, Montañez has also repeatedly posted to his social media accounts photographs of what he claims are original design materials for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Many have recently been deleted.
In public statements since conducting its internal investigation, Frito-Lay has struck a cautious tone.
In April 2020, a new chief marketing officer, Rachel Ferdinando, appears in a CNBC video feature about Flamin’ Hot products. She stops short of calling Montañez the inventor of the product.
But she does name Montañez, saying that “Richard’s insights into the Hispanic consumer really helped us shape and think about how we should talk to that consumer,” adding that his thinking insight “was something we relied on very heavily.”