Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are back in the news—and not just because they’re flying off the shelves. Last week, the NPR podcast Planet Money released an episode detailing the long-held origin story of Flamin’ Hots.
As the story goes, in the late 1980s, Richard Montañez was a janitor at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga. To earn some extra money, he would submit ideas to the factory, which was running a sort of contest for new chip flavors (Frito-Lay has not verified this contest ever existed, by the way). Montañez never won, but then while stocking chips in a store off the clock, he noticed that the Mexican spices shelf was next to the snacks shelf. It gave him an idea: make chips spicy. So, taking cues from the similarity in shape between an elote and a Cheeto, he filled a trash bag with cheeseless Cheetos off the production line, took them home, and ultimately invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Then, he called up Roger Enrico, the chief executive of Frito-Lay at the time, to pitch his idea. Enrico ate it up (figuratively, but maybe literally too?) on the spot, and the rest of history.
It’s a great story. But how much of it is true?
Enter the Los Angeles Times.
In a piece published just days after the Planet Money episode aired, the Times claimed that Montañez did not, in fact, invent the snack and that the story is just an urban legend, “according to interviews with more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, the archival record and Frito-Lay itself.”
In a statement to the Times, Frito-Lay credits Lynne Greenfield, a young MBA and junior employee, who was tasked with creating the brand in the late ’80s, and Fred Lindsay, a company salesman on the South Side of Chicago, for pushing the company into that flavor category after noticing spicy snacks from local competitors would “just blow off the shelf.”
Montañez himself only began taking credit for inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos during paid speaking engagements in the 2000s, and his claims went viral when the media promoted his feel-good rags-to-riches tale.
It all went unchecked by Frito-Lay for several years, as most of the executives involved in developing the Flamin’ Hot brand had already retired. Until 2018. That’s when Greenfield heard Montañez’s story and contacted corporate. An internal investigation was launched that resulted in no evidence of Montañez’s claims.
“If that story existed, believe me, we would have heard about it,” Ken Lukaska, who worked as a product manager for the core Cheetos brand when Flamin’ Hots were rolling out nationally, told the Times. “This guy should run for office if he’s that good at fooling everyone.”
The Times further notes that Enrico, the CEO Montañez claims he pitched his creation to, didn’t even take over the Frito-Lay brand until early 1991, which is several months after Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were already in test markets like Chicago, Houston, and Detroit.
But here the story takes a turn again, in the form of Al Carey.
Carey was division president of Frito-Lay West in 1992, when he says he first met Montañez, who pitched him ideas targeted at the Latino market. Carey has consistently toed the line in claiming that Montañez invented Flamin’ Hots and also that they existed before Montañez.
“I’m sure if you went back into the Frito-Lay history, OK, there’s probably something in 1990 that was a test market on a spicy product,” he said, according to the Times. “I’ll be surprised if it was this same ingredient, but it could have been, I guess.”
What accounts for this cautious line-skirting answer? Carey has joined Montañez on multiple paid speaking tours. So, there’s that.
And the origin story just continues to get messier. In a Twitter thread following the Planet Money piece, Sarah Aida Gonzalez, the reporter behind the story, posted an update that Frito-Lay has released a statement acknowledging Montañez’s involvement, if indirectly:
“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.” 7/14
— Sarah Aida Gonzalez (@GonzalezSarahA) May 17, 2021
Montañez, for his part, has doubled-down on his story. While he did not participate in the L.A. Times‘s investigation, he spoke with Variety saying, “All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen.”
Many on the internet have flocked to Montañez’s side, tweeting support:
Richard Montañez might not have invented Hot Cheetos but he got away with claiming he did and made a living off of that.
First Mexican to pull of a white man move with such efficacy.
A true pioneer! ES TODO MI RICHAR!
— Rodrigo Nuñez (@Rod_Nunez) May 16, 2021
In an opinion column published today in the Times’ Gustavo Arellano (who wrote about Montañez’s story back in a 2012 book) offered his take on the situation: “I understand why people are rallying behind Montañez. The truth hurts, for one. And their frustration over [Sam Dean’s] article isn’t so much about Montañez rather than a microcosm of two big issues that continue to plague Mexicans in the United States: historical erasure and the continued yearning for heroes that white America can also embrace.”
Will we ever have the full truth of this story? Probably not. But, honestly, it’s the myth we enjoy more anyway.
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