Flamin' Hot Cheetos Embroiled In Fiery Controversy Over Inventor Claims
In a world of corporate nepotism and small loans of one million dollars from daddy (a la former President Donald Trump) the humble genesis of Flamin' Hot Cheetos once reigned supreme as the hustle porn world's most powerful and beloved tale of entrepreneurship.
Before making his mark in the corporate world as an executive at Pepsi Co., Richard Montañez was a janitor at a Frito-Lay who says he came across the idea for the spicy treat after a batch of Cheetos weren't covered in the infamously finger-sticking dust due to a malfunction. Taking inspiration from a street vendor in his neighborhood who sold Mexican corn seasoned with lime and chili, Montañez decided to coat the flavorless snacks in chili powder, a twist he says his friends and family loved.
Claiming he was inspired by a recent video in which CEO Roger Enrico encouraged his employees to “… take ownership of the company,” he boldly reached out the exec to share his idea. “I called him up, not knowing you weren’t supposed to call the CEO," he remembered. Fortunately, he says the bold move paid off – he was given two weeks to prepare his pitch.
After reading up on marketing from books snagged from the library, Montañez walked into the meeting sporting a $3 tie and product packaging he designed himself. “They were amazed at the product design,” he said of that fateful day.
Just as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos ascended from that famed meeting, it seems Montañez's career followed suit. “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," the LA Times wrote of Montañez, whose story will soon be immortalized in a biopic directed by actress Eva Longoria.
“I have a PhD of being poor, hungry and determined," the beloved exec and author of the memoir Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive, told the Washington Post in 2018, singlehandedly slapping those shelling out thousands for an Ivy League doctorate with a pervasive existential crisis. "And I think when you’ve experienced those three things, there’s a lot of wisdom. When you’ve been poor, there’s so much innovation that comes out of that.”
Yet over the weekend, Montañez's powerful legacy may have grown a bit more complicated. According to a fiery new report from LA Times, citing several employees who worked at Frito-Lay during the spicy snack's creation more than three decades ago and company's records, the heartwarming story loved by business publications and heralded as a testament to the power of creativity and determination never actually happened.
"None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market," the company wrote in a statement to the California-based news outlet. “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 the report, Montañez did in fact “live out a less Hollywood version of his story,” working his way up from a worker at one of the company's plants to a "director focused on marketing," pitching several initiatives for new products during his time at the organization. The article claims that the author began publicly claiming credit for the spicy Cheeto offering in the late 2000's while speaking at a variety of engagements “at local businesses and philanthropy award ceremonies,” before the media picked it up the inspirational tale, "hungry for a feel-good story." Considering the majority of the team that worked on the product had retired years prior, the outlet says his story went unchallenged by former employees and the company as a whole.
“If that story existed, believe me, we would have heard about it,” said Ken Lukaska, who was a Cheetos product manager when the spicy snack hit shelves nationwide. “This guy should run for office if he’s that good at fooling everyone.”
So if Montañez isn't behind the snack, then who is? Apparently, a former Frito-Lay salesman from the south side of Chicago named Fred Lindsay. “I’m the one that was responsible for getting us into Flamin’ Hot products," Fred recalled. “The funny thing is, I heard maybe a year ago that some guy from California was taking credit for developing hot Cheetos, which is crazy. I’m not trying to take credit; I’m just trying to set the record straight.”
After seeing spicy products produced by regional competitors “just blow off the shelf," Lindsay says he began pressuring the marketing department to create their answer to the popular treats. “I was fighting mad to try and get hot stuff in the market,” he explained.
It seems Frito-Lay, too has a similar account of the story. “As early as 1989, there were regional competitive spicy products on the market,” they wrote, citing a red hot chip produced by Midwest snack manufacturer, Jays Foods.
Additionally, Enrico, who Montañez says he bravely called up with his idea, wasn't even working at the company when the product was 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,” the publication noted.
Timeline issues aside, another Frito-Lay employee who helped develop the product says that the exec had nothing to do with the invention of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. “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 said.
Despite these discrepancies, there is one former exec that has stood by Montañez's claims – Al Carey, former CEO of Frito-Lay North America stating that prior to the author's pitch, “the product that we know today as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was definitely not out in the market.” “That product was developed by those guys in the plant," he explained.
And as for the Chicago story above? “This is such a long time ago, I bet there was a spicy Cheeto in the Chicago, L.A., maybe Houston market, too,” he added. That said, Carey, who has made several joint appearances with Montañez, seemingly acknowledges that events could have been exaggerated over the years. “Of course stories grow, and the longer we get away from the date the stories evolve,” he noted. “I’ll bet Richard’s added a little flavor to it.”
Shortly after the article was published, Montañez took to social media to decry the article. “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,” the entrepreneur said in a video addressed to “young leaders.” “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.”