Hulu’s ‘Flamin’ Hot’ tells the story of the invention of the titular Cheetos, a billion-dollar brand. The story’s protagonist is Richard Montañez, who starts working at Frito Lay as a janitor. However, his life turns around when he comes up with the idea of creating a new flavor that would boost the company’s sales and, in turn, help him and other employees keep their jobs.
The film traces Montañez’s journey from the beginning, showing us his family’s roots and how he worked his way up to become the successful person he is now. It is an incredibly inspirational tale, but it has also been at the center of controversy. It is claimed that Montañez is not the creator of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. What’s the story behind this? Did he invent it or not? Let’s find out.
Did Richard Montañez Invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?
Richard Montañez claimed to be the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the late 2000s, around two decades after it hit the market shelves. In his memoir, ‘A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive,’ he unveils the entire story behind it. Back then, Montañez worked as a janitor at Frito Lay’s plant in Rancho Cucamonga. One day, a machine broke, leaving a batch of Cheetos undusted with orange cheese powder. He knew that they would be thrown away, so he took those Cheetos home and experimented with them. Montañez once saw a street vendor make Mexican grilled corn with lime and chili. This gave him the idea to put chili powder on the Cheetos.
Montañez sampled it with his friends and family, who liked it. Around the same time, Roger Enrico, the company’s CEO, had encouraged his employees to “take ownership of the company” and show initiative. “I called him up, not knowing you weren’t supposed to call the CEO,” Montañez wrote. He got two weeks to prepare a presentation, during which he amazed the company executives with his idea and product design. Once the idea took flight, Montañez’s life changed. That’s his version of the story.
In 2018, former Frito Lay employee Lynne Greenfeld contacted the company and reported Montañez taking credit for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. According to her, she headed the project in which the team was tasked to develop a new flavor to help them compete with the market’s growing demands. This sparked an internal investigation, and the company refused to “credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products” to Montañez.
Several discrepancies in Montañez’s narrative backed their findings. He claimed Enrico’s motivational video pushed him to take charge of the situation. Later, he did a presentation in front of Enrico and other company executives. However, Frito Lay records suggest the latter didn’t work there until about six months after Flamin’ Hots were in the test market. Enrico’s then-secretary, Patti Rueff, revealed that while she remembers Montañez calling the office to speak with him, it was around the time when Flamin’ Hots were already on the market shelves.
Frito Lay released a statement following the internal investigation, saying, “None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market. 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.” According to them, creating a new flavor was delegated to a team of professionals headed by Lynne Greenfeld, who reportedly came up with the title Flamin’ Hot.
The LA Times spoke with twenty people who had worked in the same division back then, and none remembered Montañez’s role. Six former employees claimed that the real inspiration for Flamin’ Hots came from “the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit.” Moreover, a retired Frito-Lay salesman, Fred Lindsay, claims he was responsible for getting the company into Flamin’ Hot products.
While Frito-Lay has stood by its findings and said that “the facts don’t support [Montañez’s] urban legend,” Al Carey, former president and CEO of Frito-Lay North America, thinks otherwise. In a conversation with The Times, he supported Montañez’s claims and said, “The product that we know today as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was definitely not out in the market” before he met Montañez. Yet, when asked about the internal investigation and how other former employees recall the whole thing, he conceded that it happened long ago, so there might be some discrepancies with the timeline.
“Of course, stories grow, and the longer we get away from the date, the stories evolve. I’ll bet Richard’s added a little flavor to it,” he said. Nevertheless, he maintained that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos wouldn’t be there without Montañez. Meanwhile, the latter noted that the lack of record-keeping at the time led to inconsistencies in the timeline.
“Nobody was telling me, ‘This is how executives work.’ I wasn’t a supervisor; I was the least of the least. I think that might be one of the reasons why they don’t have any documentation on me. Why would they?” Montañez said. While Frito-Lay celebrates and values “Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers,” they don’t credit him with creating Flamin’ Hots. On the other hand, he has stood by his version of the story.