Richard Montañez has touted his role in inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for over a decade, sharing the story of how he went from a janitor at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. to the creator of one of America’s most beloved snacks.
His story has even led to the production of an upcoming Searchlight Pictures biopic titled “Flamin’ Hot,” directed by Eva Longoria and produced by DeVon Franklin. But, according to a new article in the Los Angeles Times, Montañez may be telling a tall tale.
“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.”
Instead, the Times article reports that a junior employee at Frito-Lay’s corporate office in Texas named Lynne Greenfeld was assigned to develop the Flamin’ Hot brand in 1989. Greenfeld came up with the name, and helped bring the product to markets all over the U.S.
Montañez began to publicly tell his success story in the late 2000s, and Greenfeld contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 after hearing about his claims. This triggered an internal investigation into the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, with the conclusion alleging that Montañez is not the inventor.
“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.
According to Montañez’s story — which is documented in an upcoming memoir — he felt empowered to pitch his Flamin’ Hot idea to corporate after watching a motivational video from then-PepsiCo CEO, Roger Enrico, who encouraged all employees to “act like owners.”
But, the Times reports that Enrico did not yet work for the company when the Flamin’ Hot brand was developed. According to the Times, Enrico’s “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.”
However, another Frito-Lay executive, Al Carey, insisted to the Times that Montañez is the true creator of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Carey said that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were “definitely not out in the market” before he met with Montañez in 1992, who pitched him the idea. “The product was developed by those guys in the plant,” Carey added.
Frito-Lay’s statement to the Times contradicts Carey’s recollection: “According to our records, McCormick, Frito-Lay’s longtime seasoning supplier, developed the Flamin’ Hot seasoning and sent initial samples to Frito-Lay on Dec. 15, 1989. This is essentially the same seasoning Frito-Lay uses today.”
In response to Frito-Lay’s statement regarding the ingredients, Carey offered, “They may have not invented the ingredient, but they invented the energy that goes behind this thing and the positioning, and then it becomes successful.”
Frito-Lay records given to the Times did confirm that Montañez was instrumental in the rollout of Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, as well as a line of spicy products called Sabrositas.
As for the upcoming film centered on Montañez, the Times said that its producers were informed of the results of the Frito-Lay investigation in 2019, but decided to move forward. On May 4, the lead cast members of the biopic were announced, Jessie Garcia and Annie Gonzalez. In a statement to Variety regarding the casting announcement, Longoria said: “My biggest priority to make sure we are telling Richard Montañez’s story authentically. I am so happy to have two extremely talented and fellow Mexican Americans on board in these pivotal roles. Jesse and Annie have a deep understanding of our community and will be able to help tell this story of great importance for our culture.”
Representatives for Montañez, Longoria, Franklin, Searchlight Pictures and Frito-Lay did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.
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