Sometime in recent years, you might have heard the “rags-to-riches” story of the man named Richard Montañez, who says he was working as a janitor at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant when he ambitiously pitched his idea for a new spicy salty snack to the company’s chief executive. Eventually, after Mexican-American Montañez fought his way up the corporate ladder, his snack idea would become the wildly popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. His story has become so widely known that Eva Longoria is actually set to direct a biopic about Montañez’s life.
There’s just one problem—according to reporting from the Los Angeles Times, approximately zero parts of Montañez’s story are actually true. “None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” wrote Frito-Lay in a statement to the LA 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.”
Turns out Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were actually created by a team of “hotshot snack food professionals” in 1989—before Montañez could have been involved—and a junior employee named Lynne Greenfeld was the one who developed the “Flamin’ Hot” name and unveiled the line of products. “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,” said Greenfeld, who now goes by Lemmel.
Although Montañez did work his way up within Frito-Lay from a plant worker to a marketing director, it’s pretty apparent he had nothing to do with the invention of Flamin’ Hots. However, Montañez reportedly began taking credit in public for inventing Flamin’ Hots as early as the late 2000s during speeches at small award ceremonies, before his story went viral online. And weirdly, no one at Frito-Lay ever bothered to check his story, until a 2018 request from Lemmel triggered an internal company investigation on Montañez’s claim. In fact, former president and CEO of Frito-Lay North America Al Carey actually affirms Montañez’s version of events, hedging that it might be dramatized but also stating that “[Montañez] may have not invented the ingredient, but [he] invented the energy that goes behind this thing and the positioning,” which Carey believes was key to Flamin’ Hots success.
But by now, Montañez generates a whole second income from telling and selling this story, charging $10,000-$50,000 appearance fees for events at companies such as Target and Walmart and universities including Harvard and USC. His second memoir, Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive, comes out in June. (His first memoir, incredibly entitled A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive, was published in 2013.) Unsurprisingly, Montañez disputes both the statement from Frito-Lay and the findings of the very thorough LA Times investigation.
And isn’t that really the true American dream after all? To make bucketloads of money from corporations while taking credit for something you didn’t actually do and generally lying your ass off with confidence?
Oh, is that not it? Huh! Could’ve fooled me.
UPDATE 5/19/21: Since its publication, the Los Angeles Times story has garnered a fair bit of controversy, especially after Planet Money Host Sarah Aida Gonzalez detailed her own reporting on Richard Montañez, which included a comments from Frito-Lay suggesting Montañez had, in fact, invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, just co-currently along with the group given full credit in the LA Times story. It’s unclear whether the LA Times was given different information about the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, or whether a more complicated story was ignored in favor of a sexy grifter narrative.
In response to the story, LA Times food writer Gustavo Arellano, notably the author of a book about the complicated history of Mexican food in the U.S., published a column about the story, the meaning of Montañez’s legacy, particularly for Mexican Americans, and the motivations of the white reporter who chose to question the innovation.
“There are too few Mexican Americans recognized for inventing things beloved by almost everyone,” Arellano wrote. “We’re invested in those who do rise up to levels we can only hope to achieve. After all, we’re still outsiders in the United States despite our numbers, our centuries of living here. And now you have a white reporter named Sam Dean telling us that a Mexican had fibbed about creating a product popular with so many? I’d be mad, too.” The column is worth reading in full.