Richard Montanez is at the center of a dispute with Frito-Lay over who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
He says he did; Frito-Lay and its parent company have issued statements that somewhat conflict with each other. What gives? Did Richard Montanez invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos – or not? The controversy emerged after an Eva Longoria film project was announced on Montanez’s life. The Los Angeles Times then published an investigative story that claimed to debunk claims Montanez is the popular snack’s inventor.
PepsiCo countered with a statement saying, “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.” Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo.
Daily Variety reported in early May 2020 that Montanez was “a janitor at Frito Lay who took inspiration from his Mexican American heritage to create the wildly popular snack Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.” That’s been the storyline for years. But is it true?
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Frito-Lay Company Says That the ‘Facts Do Not Support the Urban Legend’ But There Are Conflicting Statements
Frito-Lay told the Los Angeles Times that the story of Montanez is 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.”
Longoria had said that her “biggest priority to make sure we are telling Richard Montañez’s story authentically.”
Sarah Aida Gonzalez, a host and reporter for NPR’s Planet Money show, has written on Twitter about lengthy, more nuanced correspondence she had with Frito-Lay that doesn’t exactly line up with the Times’ report. She wrote on Twitter, “Since @PlanetMoney put out an episode on Hot Cheetos, another story has come out about a competing claim. That piece quotes Frito-Lay as saying Richard Montañez was not involved ‘in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market.’ Frito-Lay gave us more nuanced statements.”
She added, “Despite multiple direct questions and invitations to do so, Frito-Lay did not directly deny Montañez’s involvement in creating Hot Cheetos. However, they did suggest that two independent teams could have worked separately to create the product. I mention this in the piece.”
What she says Frito-Lay told her is different from the Los Angeles Times’ story.
“I corresponded with Frito-Lay over a dozen times by email, phone and text between May 3-May 10. At first they told me: ‘… we do not credit the product creation to him and him alone.’ I asked them to clarify whether that meant Montañez was not at all involved. On May 6th, by phone, the response was: ‘He was a part of it. Yes. Sure.’ I spoke to Frito-Lay again this morning and they confirmed that they did make this statement. 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.”
She then quoted, “Former employees recall that a small CA-based marketing team which was developing products for San Diego and Los Angeles learned of the Richard Montañez product and decided to test market in Southern CA and that it performed well and was handed over to Frito-Lay R&D. Former Frito-Lay R&D members recall that samples were prepared and submitted to FLNA HQ R&D from the Cucamonga plant. A supply chain leader thought they may have used the Flamin’ Hot seasoning from the pork rind product, but wasn’t entirely sure.”
She continued, “Frito-Lay did not specifically say whether these samples were Hot Cheetos. However, they mentioned two former employees who remembered Cheetos specifically.” She says 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.”
At question was whether there was a meeting on the topic. “Frito-Lay told me they first talked to the LA Times on Thurs, after our episode published. They said they gave the same information to them as they gave to me. But said they ‘learned things yesterday’ from the story and that ‘additional facts were brought to light.'”
Frito-Lay also said “Roger Enrico was not present at this meeting.” They were unable to confirm the date of the meeting, or whether it was the same meeting Montañez, and Enrico’s former assistant, Patti Reuff, described,” she wrote, adding, “As I mentioned above, Frito-Lay did tell me about Hot Cheetos tested out in a Midwest market in 1989/1990. But in an email and by phone, Frito-Lay said it’s possible the Midwest product could have been happening at the same time as the Cucamonga product. At the time of the Rancho Cucamonga meeting, FLNA was divided into divisions, with each division operating independently with its own executive team. As such, the West Division may not have been aware of the Metroline products/test.”
She concluded, “Update: Frito-Lay told me they first talked to the LA Times on Thurs, after our episode published. They said they gave the same information to them as they gave to me. But said they “learned things yesterday” from the story and that ‘additional facts were brought to light.'” You can read the NPR story here.
2. Montanez Called Himself Frito-Lay’s ‘Greatest Ambassador’; Pepsi-Co Released a Statement Defending Him
According to Daily Variety, Montanez called himself Frito-Lay’s “greatest ambassador.”
“But I will say this, you’re going to love your company more than they will ever love you, keep that in perspective,” he added.
According to the Times, Montanez has been “telling the story of how he invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetoes” for a decade, adding that he pitched the idea to the company’s chief executive but was almost sabotaged by “corporate backstabbers.”
Although he didn’t speak to the Times, Montanez posted an Instagram video a short time later in which he says in part, “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. 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.”
Pepsi-Co released a statement defending Montanez:
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 Montanez 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.
3. Another Employee Named Lynne Greenfeld Is Credited With Coming Up With the Product’s Name
The Los Angeles Times article says that Lynne Greenfeld, a “junior employee at Frito-Lay’s corporate office in Texas” was assigned to develop the Flamin’s Hot brand in 1989.
The newspaper reports that she thought of the name and helped launch the brand. The newspaper adds that an internal investigation was launched after she went to Frito-Lay upon hearing Montanez’s story back in 2018, and it determined he did not invent the snack.
“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.
The Times reported that Flamin’ Hots “were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals” in 1989 in Texas who were trying to come up with a product to compete with “spicy snacks” sold in inner city Midwestern stores. Fred Lindsay, a retired Frito-Lay salesman from Chicago, told the Times that he was the one who pressured the company to come up with a spicy competitor to compete in this market.
4. Montanez, Who Is the Son of Migrant Farm Workers, Has a Book Coming Out About His Life
It’s not just the Longoria film. There’s also a book by Montanez coming out in June. “Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive,” it’s called, according to Amazon.com.
The book blurb says:
The unforgettable true story of how a janitor struggling to put food on the table invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in a secret test kitchen, breaking barriers and becoming the first Latino executive at Frito-Lay.
Richard Montañez wasn’t supposed to have big dreams. Born to migrant farm workers and mired in grinding generational poverty, he left school in the sixth grade, eventually taking a job mopping floors at Frito Lay’s California factory to support his young wife and family. Everything changed when one night, at 28, Montañez took his future in his hands: he used his wife’s recipe for chili sauce to season a bag of plain Cheetos he’d snuck home. After an intense process of experimenting and testing, and an incredibly risky call to the company’s CEO, breaking with protocol, Montañez launched Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. He never expected the onslaught of discrimination, backstabbing, and attempted sabotage—or the chip’s explosive success.
Flamin’ Hot shares the inside story of the world’s hottest snack food. Montañez not only disrupted the food industry with some much-needed spice, but also shook up a corporate culture in which everyone stayed in their lane. When a top food scientist at Frito-Lay sent out a memo telling sales and marketing to kill the new product before it made it to the store shelves—jealous that someone with no formal education beyond the sixth grade could do his job—Montañez was forced to go rogue once again to save his idea. Through creative thinking, community building, and a few powerful mindset shifts, he outsmarted the naysayers who tried to get in his way.
This is the inspiring story of a man who made a science out of walking through closed doors. It’s also an empowerment manual for anyone stuck in a dead-end job or facing a system stacked against them. Flamin’ Hot provides hope that your present circumstances don’t have to dictate your future, carving a new path to the American Dream.
5. Montanez Did Rise From Being a Janitor to a Marketing Director at the Company & a Top Job With Pepsi
Although the Times didn’t find that Montanez invented the snack, they did find that he had an inspiring rise from janitor to company executive ranks all the same.
He eventually became a “director focused on marketing,” the Times reported, who “also pitched new product initiatives.” He later became vice president of multicultural sales & community promotions for PepsiCo.
On his Instagram page, Montanez seeks bookings and speaking engagements. “Creator of FLAMIN HOT CHEETOS,” his page says.