PepsiCo have released a statement in support of a former janitor who claimed he invented their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos flavor – just days after they admitted he had nothing to do with the creation of the product.
Richard Montañez, 62, began working as a janitor for Frito Lay – a company owned by PepsiCo – back in 1976. He has long claimed that he pitched the idea for the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos flavor by boldly calling up company execs in 1990.
Since that time, Montañez- a Mexican-American who was raised in a California migrant camp – has become revered as an immigrant success story. He went on to become vice president of multicultural sales & community promotions for PepsiCo and spent four decades at the company.
He has additionally written a best-selling book about his remarkable tale, and he commands up to $50,000 for motivational speeches, which include regular references what he claims is his role in creating the cult spicy chip. A biopic of his life, Flamin’ Hot, is currently in the works and is set to be directed by Eva Longoria.
But last week, a bombshell report from The Los Angeles Times alleged that Montañez had made up most of his story. The paper spoke with multiple sources who disputed that the former janitor invented the popular product.
Frito Lay is quoted in the report as saying: ‘None of our records show that Montañez 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 he was not involved in any capacity… The facts do not support the urban legend.’
Montañez subsequently spoke with Variety saying he was disappointed that Frito Lay publicly doubted his story.
‘I was their greatest ambassador,’ he stated. ‘But I will say this, you’re going to love your company more than they will ever love you, keep that in perspective.
However, on Friday, Frito Lay’s parent company PepsiCo released a new statement, praising Montañez for his contribution to their business – while not disputing their earlier claim that he hadn’t been involved in creating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
‘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.
PepsiCo have released a statement in support of a former janitor Richard Montañez, who claimed he invented their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos flavor – just days after they said he was not at all involved in the creation of the product. He is pictured in 2017
Montañez- a Mexican-American who was raised in a California migrant camp – has become revered as an immigrant success story. A second book about his rags-to-riches tale is set to be released next month (poctured)
‘Far from being an urban legend, Montañez had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today,’ the statement continued.
‘His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. 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.’
The statement additionally claimed that there were ‘different work streams tackling the same product without interacting’ and that Montañez may possibly have had some part in the invention of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos without their awareness.
Eva Longoria and others involved in Montañez’s biopic are similarly standing by him without being able to verify whether or not he actually invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
The film’s screenwriter, Lewis Colick, told Variety that ‘enough’ of the story seems true.
‘We’re not in the documentary business,’ he stated, defending his film project.
Longoria also retweeted a post from a Latino civil rights advocate which stated: ‘A big thank you to @PepsiCo for their strong statement on how our friend Richard Montañez’ inspired, influenced and invigorated the company for more than four decades. Our stories matter and Richard’s is a special one. #FlaminHotFacts’.
However, the LA Times are doubling down on their initial report.
‘Frito Lay parent PepsiCo has a new statement responding to our story about the origins of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It affirms our reporting,’ the paper’s deputy business editor Jeff Bercovici tweeted.
The original LA Times story – titled ‘The man who didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos’ – was published last weekend with the paper speaking with former colleagues and executives at Frito Lay, who called into question Montañez’s story.
In particular, one woman, Lynne 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.
Flamin’ Hot – the biopic of Montañez’s rags-to-riches tale – is currently in the works and is set to be directed by Eva Longoria
Montañez subsequently spoke with Variety saying he was disappointed that Frito Lay publicly doubted his story
Montañez has claimed 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 not a janitor when Flamin’ Hot was born. He had been promoted to machinist operator by October 1977, shortly after his hiring.
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.
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 in response to local spicy chip brands that Frito Lay workers noticed would fly off shelves. 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.’
While Frito Lay said Montañez was not involved in the creation of the Flamin’ Hot, parent company PepsiCo are now defending him
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, and enjoyed an impressive professional trajectory that ultimately saw him 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 Lay got in touch with the production company to warn them Montañez’s story was not quite as it seemed.
Longoria is proceeding with the film, however, and casting has been completed.
Jesse Garcia, star of Quinceañera, who has also appeared in Jarhead and Narcos, is playing Montañez and filming will take place this summer in New Mexico.
Jesse Garcia (left) will play Montañez in the biopic, with filming due to start this summer