Flamin' Hot Cheetos aren't just a favorite American snack; they are a neon-red hot, cultural phenomenon that's inspired rap videos, recipes, and streetwear designs. But the story of how they were created and who created them has become the subject of much debate and controversy.
In an interview for "LA Times Today," reporter Sam Dean talked with host Lisa McRee about what he discovered.
The person in the center of the Flamin' Hot Cheetos debate is businessman Richard Montañez.
"There has been a story going around on blogs, videos, and Richard Montañez has been giving a lot of speeches and public speaking engagements. He has a memoir and movie coming out about his life and how he was working in Rancho Cucamonga at a Frito-Lay plant out there. At first, he worked as a janitor, then a machine line worker, and came up with the idea for Flamin' Hot Cheetos in his telling. After that, Montañez pitched the idea to the CEO, then the CEO flew out, saw the pitch, and the product ended up hitting markets. And that led Montañez to climb the corporate ladder and becoming this inspirational figure in Latino marketing, and motivational speaking in general," Dean said.
Montañez had been doing different speeches throughout his career, but Dean said things have ramped up since Montañez retired in 2019.
"He has speaking fees between $10,000 and $50,000 for these speeches— including some on Zoom, Harvard Business School, for the Philadelphia Eagles, USC, Target—all over the place."
Dean said he received an anonymous tip saying there were some issues with the story, and he started digging and realized that specific details did not match the historical record.
"There was some stuff about the timeline of when Montañez says he called this CEO named Roger Enrico, but Roger Enrico did not become the CEO until late 1991 or early 1992. But, the products were on the market in 1990, so that did not make sense. I spoke to a lot of former employees of Frito-Lay who were in the new product departments around that time, and Montañez's story did not ring a bell for anyone."
According to Dean, Frito-Lay has a policy to not credit one person with a product invention or flavor extension.
"This is the biggest snack company in America. So, the salespeople came up with the idea; that got punted over to the marketing department, and this new hire straight out of business school named Lynne Greenfeld got assigned it on her first day. They told her she needed to come up with a small bag of something spicy. So, she worked with the people that designed the bags; she remembers that she came up with the name and worked with the legal department to trademark Flamin' Hot. The R and D department has many scientists who work at Frito-Lay, and they came up with the flavors and taste-tested them; it was a process. And then it went out in test markets in the Midwest and Houston around 1990."
Once Dean published the story, there was a backlash from the Latino community.
"Understandably, Richard Montañez is a Mexican American man who worked his way up; he was a working-class janitor and machine operator at the beginning of his career, and he did make his way up the ladder of this huge company. He became a motivational guy, and he is a real motivational speaker and is very charismatic. It has been difficult; many people have been upset at the idea that the LA Times is trying to disprove this story. But in discussion with our editors, Montañez has a movie coming out about him directed by Eva Longoria; he has this memoir coming out. There are just many deep inconsistencies in his story that it seemed worth it to show that it was not true. But he is sort of a folk hero to some people, so it has been difficult," Dean added.
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