For more than a decade, an urban legend has surrounded the creation of the snack food Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It was a rags to riches story about a janitor at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, who came up with the idea for these spicy chips and pitched it to a room full of executives. Then it became one of the company’s best selling products, a cultural phenomenon, and the subject of rap songs. Some schools even banned it for being too distracting.
Richard Montañez climbed the ranks at Frito-Lay, and after retiring, he told his story in well-paid speaking gigs, in two memoirs, and in an upcoming Hollywood biopic that’s set to be directed by Eva Longoria.
As it turns out, Montañez lied about his role in developing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for years, says Sam Dean, business reporter for the LA Times.
He first said he invented the chip in 2007, explains Dean, in a blurb for a speaking engagement. “It went through a lot of food blogs. It became this viral story because it's such a feel good story about this guy inventing spicy products. And it just kind of took on a life of its own, honestly. And he kept telling it.”
Frito-Lay told the LA Times in a statement, “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. … That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend.”
After looking into the origins of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dean says the product was based on a regional hot chip found in inner-city mini markets across Chicago and Detroit.
“Frito-Lay is one of the largest food companies in the country, and in this case, Frito-Lay prides itself on its sales forces out in the field, going from store to store, seeing what's selling, seeing what's not working. … There were some competitors, [such as] Jay's potato chips, a Chicago company [that] had a spicy, bright red product. And I think the quote from Fred Lindsey is that ‘they were just blowing off the shelves.’ And so Frito-Lay wanted something to compete [with].”
Part of the Flamin’ Hot development team was Lynn Greenfeld. Dean says her first assignment at Frito-Lay was developing the now-famous snack.
“She says she came up with the name Flamin’ Hot. They worked on a bunch of different flavors, did taste test market research to get the right level of spice, and McCormick [the spice brand] blended up the Flamin’ Hot flavor, which is essentially the same as the one that we have today.”
He describes Greenfeld’s reaction when first hearing about Montañez taking credit: “She was just shocked that more on the principle that Frito-Lay was letting a false story in her mind spread so widely. She thought that this was some kind of fluke, so she got in touch with the company and was like, ‘Hey, do you guys know that this is happening?’ I think her main motivation is just setting the record straight.”
Dean points out that outside of the assertion that he developed the Hot Cheeto, Montañez did rise the Frito-Lay ranks and helped create new spicy products.
“He was working in the marketing and sales divisions and had moved from a blue collar job to a white collar job. … There was Flamin’ Hot popcorn, there was lime and chili Fritos. He was involved in this push for marketing that did kind of change the course of his career and got a lot of attention from the top of the company, but it just seems like it wasn't Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”