Here’s What That Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Controversy Is All About

We broke down the Flamin' Hot Cheetos origin controversy so you don't have to sift through all the tweets.
May 19, 2021, 9:18pm
Flamin Hot Cheetos Inventor Richard Montanez
Image via Getty

Last January, Eva Longoria talked to Entertainment Weekly about Flamin’ Hot, the biopic she’s directing about Richard Montañez, the Frito-Lay janitor-turned-exec who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “It’s a beautiful story,” she said. “His whole life, he was told ‘No, that opportunity’s not for you, ideas don’t come from people like you,’ and he was like, ‘Why not?’ It’s a very beautiful story [about] the man and his journey and how he succeeded in a world that tells you no.”

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Earlier this month, Longoria announced that actor Jesse Garcia had been selected to play Montañez in Flamin’ Hot, and Annie Gonzalez has been cast as his wife, Judy. What Longoria hasn’t discussed is whether the flick will go ahead, after the jaw-dropping Los Angeles Times investigation that turned Montañez’ “beautiful” backstory about inventing the insanely popular snack into what could be artificially flavored fiction. The Times has questioned Montañez’ claims about the super spicy Cheetos, suggesting that they were actually developed a couple of years earlier and over 1,000 miles away from the factory where he worked. 

But let’s go back to the beginning. For more than a decade, Montañez has told his legit rags-to-riches tale of working his way up from sweeping the floors at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, California, to becoming a vice-president at Frito-Lay’s parent company, PepsiCo. He’s already published one book about his experiences, and a second one (Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive) is coming out this summer. SparkNotes-ish versions of his story are frequently summarized on websites that specialize in uplifting news, or underneath headlines like “What leaders can learn from the janitor who invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.” 

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To listen to Montañez tell it, he started working at Frito-Lay in 1976, when he was 18 years old. His future wife Judy filled out the application for him because he struggled to read and write, but he got the job and he was thrilled about it. “I [told my grandfather], I'm the janitor. I'm going to mop the floor,”  Montañez said on NPR’s Planet Money last week. “And he said, when you mop that floor, you make sure that it shines. And when people see it, they know that a Montañez mopped it.” 

Montañez told NPR that two things happened in the late 1980s that sent him on his path toward Flamin’ Hot history. First, Frito-Lay started an internal program that would reward employees with a silver dollar for every idea they had that could improve the company, and Montañez says he was an enthusiastic participant. And next, a man named Roger Enrico became the company’s CEO, and he told all employees—regardless of their roles—that he wanted them to start thinking like they were the owners. 

Montañez took that to heart and decided that, if he were the owner, he would start making snacks that appealed to people who like spicy foods, like the shoppers at the Mexican supermarkets where he’d occasionally go to stock the shelves with Frito-Lay chips. One night when he and Judy were at an elote cart, he looked at the buttered ears of corn, covered with red chile powder and a generous squeeze of lime juice and had an epiphany. “Oh, my God,” he recalled. “That looks like a Cheeto.” 

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He and Judy became a two-person R&D team. He’d bring plain Cheetos home—the ones that hadn’t been coated with that signature cheese dust—and they’d test assorted spice blends and try different ways to coat the chips with their house-made flavor combos. When he thought he’d nailed it, Montañez bagged some of them up, designed his own logo, and literally called the CEO on the phone to tell him what he’d just invented. 

Two weeks later, Enrico toured the plant, and Montañez made a boardroom presentation about his new snack idea—while wearing the first tie he’d ever owned. Frito Lay started production on what became Flamin’ Hot Cheetos shortly after that, using a flavor blend based on what Judy had made in their kitchen. (Montañez said she was never compensated for her command of the spice cabinet.) 

In the years that followed, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos became a big thing—and then an even bigger thing—and Montañez scored promotion after promotion, eventually becoming a vice-president at PepsiCo. He retired in 2019, more than 40 years after Judy filled out that application for him. In addition to writing two books and selling the film rights to his life, he’s also worked as a motivational speaker, reportedly earning between $10,000 and $50,000 per appearance. 

That is a beautiful story—except for the parts that Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Dean says may not be true. And unfortunately the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos thing is one of the things that could be filed under “may not be true.” Dean interviewed more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, scoured newspaper and press clippings that covered Montañez’ tenure with the company and the launch of the company’s then-new Flamin’ Hot product lines, and none of it seems to match the version that Montañez has literally been selling. 

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“None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay told 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.”

Frito-Lay recently conducted its own internal investigation into Montañez’ claims, which kicked off when a woman who did work on the product’s development team contacted the company to find out who Montañez was and why he was taking the Flamin’ Hot credit. Lynne Greenfeld, then a junior employee at Frito-Lay’s Plano, Texas headquarters, attests that she was put in charge of developing a spiced-up snack to compete with the local brands that were sold in corner stores in the midwest—and she says she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name too.

In the summer of 1990, Frito-Lay started sending single-serving bags of Greenfeld’s Flamin’ Hot Fritos, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Flamin’ Hot Lays to stores in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Houston. They were an almost immediate hit, and the snacks were being sold nationwide by 1992. 

According to Dean, that info doesn’t fit with Montañez’ version of events because Roger Enrico—the CEO who inspired him to “think like an owner”—didn’t even start at Frito-Lay until 1991. By the time Enrico settled into his new office chair, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos had been on the shelves in those four test markets for six months. (Patti Rueff, who worked as Enrico’s personal assistant, does remember Montañez calling to speak to him, but the phone call had to have happened after the Flamin’ Hots were already out in the world.) 

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“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,” Greenfeld told the Times.

Even without the potential embellishment, Montañez is still incredibly impressive, and his resume illustrates the initiative, innovation, and perseverance he displayed during his 42 years with Frito-Lay. He really did climb several rungs on the corporate ladder, and he really did submit dozens of his ideas to Frito-Lay. 

“Veteran machine operator Richard Montañez became so energized by [manager Steve] Smith’s new operating style that after listening to salesmen he developed a new ethnic-food concept aimed at the Hispanic market,” a 1993 article from U.S. News and World Report reads. “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.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that Frito-Lay has previously reached out to Eva Longoria to share its concerns about the upcoming biopic, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the behind-the-scenes part of the production from going ahead. A representative for Longoria declined comment to Variety earlier this week. Portfolio Books, which is publishing Montañez’ upcoming memoir, continues to support him. “We are proud to stand with our author,” Portfolio founder Adrian Zackheim said. “Richard Montañez embodies the entrepreneurial spirit; we salute his dedication to inspiring people to own their own stories no matter what their circumstances.”

And, of course, Montañez isn’t backing down from what he says is his own authentic experience. “In that era, Frito-Lay had five divisions,” he told Variety. “I don’t know what the other parts of the country, the other divisions—I don’t know what they were doing. I’m not even going to try to dispute [Lynne Greenfeld], because I don’t know. All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen.”

Update: On Friday, Frito-Lay’s parent company PepsiCo released a statement in support of Montañez.

“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 statement read. “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,” it continued. “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.” 

Eva Longoria, the director of the upcoming film about Montañez, shared links to the statement on her Instagram story.