It is almost certainly a fact that Richard Montañez did not invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
That revelation, which came to light as part of a 2021 Los Angeles Times investigation, arrived at a rather inconvenient time, considering a biopic based on Montañez’s inspirational 2013 memoir, “A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive,” in which he claims to have invented the spicy snack, was already in development.
But the Times article wasn’t a death knell for the film — in fact, far from it.
“We never set out to tell the history of the Cheeto,” Eva Longoria, who is making her feature directorial debut with “Flamin’ Hot,” told The Los Angeles Times in March, shortly before the film’s premiere at South by Southwest. “We are telling Richard Montañez’s story and we’re telling his truth.”
So, the filmmakers forged ahead, and “Flamin’ Hot,” which bills itself as a “true story,” will begin streaming on Disney+ and Hulu on Friday. The film follows Montañez (Jesse Garcia) through his early days as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant in California, where he eventually makes a pivotal phone call to Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), the chief executive of the Frito-Lay parent company PepsiCo, to pitch an idea for a tasty corn puff. That sets him on a path to becoming a multicultural marketing executive at PepsiCo.
Here’s a guide to how the spicy Cheeto tale unraveled, what parts of it are actually true (there are some!) and what the real Montañez has said about the controversy.
Who is Richard Montañez?
Montañez began his career at Frito-Lay in 1976, when he was hired as a janitor at the company’s plant in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a marketing executive.
For around 15 years, he has claimed that he came up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the early 1990s after observing that Frito-Lay didn’t have any products geared toward Latinos.
Did he invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?
The Los Angeles Times investigation concluded that he did not, based on interviews with more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, company records and some glaring inconsistencies — nay, impossibilities — in his story.
For one, Montañez, who’s now in his 60s, often recounts the story of how he cold-called the PepsiCo chief executive to pitch his idea after watching a motivational video Enrico had recorded as part of a campaign encouraging Frito-Lay employees to “act like owners.”
There was just one problem, The Times found: Enrico didn’t take over at the company until early 1991 — almost six months after Flamin’ Hot products were already available in a test market.
So that’s a no, right?
Well, Montañez did invent something at Frito-Lay; it just wasn’t Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. According to a 1993 U.S. News & World Report article, Montañez pitched Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, which debuted in March 1994 as an extension of the Flamin’ Hot line.
Roberto Siewczynski, who in 1994 worked as an outside consultant on the test market for a new product line aimed at Latinos in Los Angeles — Sabrositas — also told The Times that Montañez was heavily involved in their development.
What has Frito-Lay said?
After a former employee, Lynne Greenfeld, contacted the company in 2018 to dispute Montañez’s claim, Frito-Lay conducted an internal investigation, which found no evidence that Montañez played a role in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Though, the company noted, the part of his story about him rising from a janitor to a marketing director was accurate.
A spokesperson for PepsiCo did pay tribute to Montañez’s contributions in a second statement — which did not challenge any of the facts of The Times’s investigation — saying that “his insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”
Who did invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?
The company told The Los Angeles Times that its records indicated that the snack was developed by a group of scientists and marketing executives beginning in 1989 at Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. Greenfeld, then a junior employee, was tasked with developing the brand and, Frito-Lay said, came up with the Flamin’ Hot name.
What has Montañez said?
He’s sticking to his version of the story.
One of his arguments is that because he worked such a low-level job, there was a lack of documentation of his efforts. As for the inconsistencies in the timeline, he told Variety in 2021 that he was not aware of what might have been going on in other parts of the company.
“I’m not even going to try to dispute that lady, because I don’t know,” he told Variety, speaking of Greenfeld. “All I can tell you is what I did.”
Does the film acknowledge the controversy?
No. An epilogue characterizes the film as a “true story,” without mentioning the Los Angeles Times investigation or Frito-Lay’s warnings to filmmakers in 2019 that it was unable to verify Montañez’s involvement in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
The film does mention that a group of Frito-Lay executives was simultaneously working on a spicy chip at a plant in the Midwest, though it doesn’t pursue this plotline.
What Else Does the Film Get Right or Wrong?
Did Montañez deal drugs before joining Frito-Lay?
Yes. In his 2013 memoir, he chronicles his life as a gang member in East Los Angeles when he was young.
Did Montañez lie on his Frito-Lay application about having a high school diploma?
A voice-over in the film describes him as uneducated, and a tense scene shows him agonizing over the application. It’s unclear whether Montañez, who dropped out of high school at some point before his sophomore year, fudged a credential he didn’t have or just persuaded Frito-Lay to hire him without one.
Was Clarence Baker, the plant engineer whom Montañez befriends in the film, based on a real person?
Yes, according to a spokeswoman for Searchlight Pictures, the film’s distributor. The character played by Dennis Haysbert was inspired by an employee at the plant where Montañez worked. The engineer died a few years ago, and his name was changed for the film.
Was Frito-Lay resistant to promoting Montañez?
While the company’s opposition to his advancement is central to the plot of “Flamin’ Hot,” in real life, Montañez was promoted to a machinist operator within his first year, according to Frito-Lay records.
Was Frito-Lay going to pull Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from shelves before a grass-roots marketing campaign spearheaded by Montañez?
No. In Montañez’s most recent memoir, “Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise From Janitor to Top Executive,” he recounts enlisting local women to hold Tupperware parties to help drum up interest in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which, he writes, initially struggled to gain traction in a Southern California test market. According to what Siewczynski, the consultant, told The Los Angeles Times, that account is accurate — if you’re talking about Montañez’s involvement with Sabrositas, not Cheetos.