We, too, believed the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos origin story

Bags of crunchy Cheetos on store shelves
Photo: Geri Lavrov / Contributor (Getty Images)

It was the perfect origin story: Richard Montañez, the child of immigrants, worked as a janitor at a snack company. He developed a new snack recipe on his own time, hustled to get the recipe in front of company leaders, sold the recipe, and snagged a C-suite office and his own slice of the American dream. It’s the story behind Flamin’ Hot, the new biopic directed by Eva Longoria. It’s also likely untrue. And we, along with many others, fell for it.

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The L.A. Times debunked the entire story over the weekend. Reporter Sam Dean writes that Flamin’ Hot snacks were already on the market by the time Montañez pitched his snack ideas in 1992. The Times also interviewed numerous Frito-Lay higher-ups, all of whom seemed baffled by the Montañez story. In fact, Frito-Lay began investigating Montañez’s public claims in 2018, when one of the Frito-Lay employees behind the original Flamin’ Hot launch saw a story about Montañez in Esquire. “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,” said Frito-Lay in a statement.

One quibble: NPR’s Sarah Aida Gonzalez pointed out that Frito-Lay adjusted its statement slightly. The brand wrote:

“Former employees recall that a small CA-based marketing team which was developing products for San Diego and Los Angeles learned of the Richard Montañez product and decided to test market in Southern CA and that it performed well and was handed over to Frito-Lay R&D.”

That means that, since the Midwest and West Coast teams were working separately, there’s a chance similar products could have been tested simultaneously in the different markets. However, the Times also noted that Montañez had repeatedly posted photos of “what he claims are original design materials for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos” on his personal social media accounts—many of which have recently been deleted.

Like we said, we believed the guy. The story was compelling, and there didn’t seem to be a reason to dig up receipts. Eater writes:

“But the fantasy is incredible, isn’t it? A Mexican-American man working in a factory feeling not just empowered enough to pitch an idea to a CEO, but to actually be listened to and taken seriously. And that the idea he was pitching was something for the Latino community, something to make a massive group of marginalized people feel catered to, felt even better. It’s rags-to-riches story, one where a Mexican-American man speaks up to white executives, turning his savvy recognition of a market into success.”

Here’s what we do know: per the Times, Montañez did work as a machinist operator in the Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay plant in the 1990s. He did pitch a spicy snack to executives; however, according to the Times, that product was Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, part of the existing Flamin’ Hot line. Finally, Montañez did rise to the C-suite; however, most of his origin story appears to be exaggerated. It sure was tasty for a time, though. Very tasty, indeed.

Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.

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