A Mexican-American laborer who claimed to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, setting his life on an incredible rags-to-riches pathway, was exposed on Sunday as having invented key parts of the story.
Richard Montañez, 62, has written two books telling his remarkable tale, and commands up to $50,000 for motivational speeches. A biopic of his life, Flamin’ Hot, is currently being made by Eva Longoria.
Yet The Los Angeles Times spoke to former colleagues and executives at the food company, who called into question Montañez’s story.
In particular, one woman, Linda Greenfeld, said that she was put in charge of developing the brand and came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and product idea.
‘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 told the paper.
Montañez has not commented on the claims.
Montañez, 62, claims to have come up with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos – yet that may not be true
Montañez was certainly involved in product development – a remarkable feat for someone who joined the company in 1976 as a janitor.
He claims that, as a janitor, he rang the chief executive and pitched the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Yet Frito-Lay said its records show he was promoted to machinist operator by October 1977, shortly after his hiring.
In that role, he writes in his new memoir, he spearheaded a program to reduce waste along the assembly line.
Greenfeld joined the company in 1989, and was tasked with finding a product that appealed to spicier tastes and could rival the flavor-filled snacks that were selling well in the mid West.
Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit – not from California, where Montañez worked.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are one of the company’s best-known products and biggest sellers
Fred Lindsay, a salesman for the Chicago region, remembers clearly working to develop the snack.
‘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,’ Lindsay told The LA Times.
‘I’m not trying to take credit; I’m just trying to set the record straight.’
By August 1990, test versions of Flamin’ Hot were launched in Chicago, Detroit and Houston. By early 1992, they were on sale nationwide.
Montañez’s version of events does not fit the timeline.
Montañez’s tale is that he felt empowered to invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos after watching a motivational video from Roger Enrico, the CEO of the company, that encouraged all Frito-Lay workers to ‘act like owners’ and take charge of the business.
Yet Enrico did not start work until the beginning of 1991 – by which point the product had already been invented, and tested.
Montañez claims that he called Enrico to pitch the idea and that Enrico flew out to Rancho Cucamonga, California, weeks later to witness his pitch in person.
Enrico died in June 2016, aged 71, in a snorkeling accident in the Cayman Islands.
Al Carey, the only senior executive to support Montañez’s version of events, conceded that there were issues with some details, and said that Enrico was not in attendance at the infamous meeting.
‘Of course stories grow, and the longer we get away from the date the stories evolve,’ Carey said.
But, he insisted, Montañez did invent Flamin’ Hot.
‘I’ll bet Richard’s added a little flavor to it,’ Carey said.
‘The product that we know today as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was definitely not out in the market’ before his meeting with Montañez, Carey said.
‘That product was developed by those guys in the plant.’
Montañez and his wife are pictured at a 2014 gala celebrating the contributions of Latinos
Yet the LA Times spoke with 20 people who worked at the Frito-Lay divisions responsible for new product development 32 years ago, and none recall Montañez’s meeting with Enrico and coming up with the mega-selling product.
‘If that story existed, believe me, we would have heard about it,’ said Ken Lukaska, who worked as a product manager for the core Cheetos brand when Flamin’ Hots were rolling out nationally.
‘This guy should run for office if he’s that good at fooling everyone.’
Montañez certainly played a role in marketing for the company, rising to become a director at the brand.
Montañez began telling his Flamin’ Hot story in the early 2000s, and retired in 2019
Roberto Siewczynski worked on the Sabrositas test market in 1994 as an outside consultant, and remembers Montañez being deeply involved in the process.
He said Sabrositas’ marketing campaign aligns with what Montañez describes in his memoir for Flamin’ Hot, and concludes that the two stories became intertwined.
‘I did go to Rancho Cucamonga,’ said Siewczynski.
He told The LA Times he was surprised to learn that the Sabrositas project was being led by production and distribution workers, not the marketing department, as a community-driven campaign focused on the Latino market in Los Angeles.
‘It was, ‘Hey, the plant really wants to do this; Richard really wants to do this,’ and they cut out a lot of the traditional management.’
Montañez began telling his story in the early 2000s, and Greenfeld heard of it in 2018.
She was asked by the company’s lawyers about the Flamin’ Hot name, and told them she definitively came up with it herself.
In 2019, when Longoria’s film was in early discussion, Frito-Lays got in touch with the production company to warn them Montañez’s story was not quite as it seemed.
‘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.’