The Janitor Credited with Creating Flamin' Hot Cheetos Had Nothing to Do with Them, L.A. Times Reports
"Never let the truth get in the way of a good story": It's a fine rule of thumb for chatting with friends over drinks, but what if that exaggerated anecdote rewrites history? Richard Montañez has a compelling story: A rags-to-riches tale of a Frito-Lay janitor who climbed the corporate ladder to an executive position in large part thanks to creating the immensely popular product Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Admittedly, we've helped spread Montañez's account, first covering it back in 2016. And we're far from the only ones: In 2018, a movie based on Flamin' Hot Cheetos origin story was announced, and in 2019, Eva Longoria was named as the director. The lead actors were announced just this month.
But a jaw-dropping investigative report from Sam Dean published yesterday by the Los Angeles Times alleges that many of the most important details about Montañez's story simply aren't true. And Dean lays out a compelling timeline, corroborated largely by Frito-Lay itself, that Montañez did not actually create Flamin' Hot Cheetos at all.
Certain things do remain as facts, according to the Times: Montañez did start at Frito-Lay as a janitor and retired in 2019 as a member of the executive team. However, the report found that Flamin' Hot Cheetos were first test-marketed in 1990, which predates many of the details of Montañez's story, in which he claims a machine broke leaving a bunch of undusted Cheetos. The then-janitor took some home where he was inspired by elote vendors to dust them with spicy chile powder, and the rest is (until the Times found otherwise) history.
"None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot test market," Frito-Lay explained in a statement to the 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." The company continued, "That doesn't mean we don't celebrate Richard […] but the facts do not support the urban legend."
Those interviews reportedly stemmed from an internal investigation at Frito-Lay, initiated around 2018 when the company was contacted by Lynne Greenfeld, the woman who claims to have actually come up with the name "Flamin' Hot Cheetos." She told the Times she came across Montañez's viral story in Esquire. "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," she was quoted as saying.
And as further confirmation, the Times claims to have seen an email from Leanne Oliver, general counsel at Frito-Lay North America, which stated, "Frito-Lay will continue to take the position that Flamin' Hot Cheetos was created by a team of people and, as with all of our products, we do not credit one person with a product invention or flavor extension."
Still, Dean's report did find that some of the specifics surrounding Montañez's Flamin' Hot Cheetos story may be based on a kernel of truth: Montañez's coworker Roberto Siewczynski told the paper that Montañez was heavily involved in the launch of the Sabrositas line of products that featured a few similar products, including Flamin' Hot Popcorn and Lime and Chile Fritos—the latter of which had a near-identical origin story to the one Montañez now uses for Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
As for Montañez's response, Dean wrote, "Montañez did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email, phone, direct message, attempts to reach him through a publicity agent, and questions delivered to a family member at a home listed in Montañez's name."
However, Montañez did post to his verified Instagram account not long after the Times story was published. "I don't care what room you're in, there's always somebody in the room that's going to try to steal your destiny. They may even say you never existed," he said in the video. "I want you to do this: Write down your history, because if you don't, somebody else will. Remember that. And also remember this, the best way to destroy a positive message is to destroy the messenger. Never allow that to happen to you. I'm certainly not going to allow it to happen to me."
Beyond the forthcoming film, Montañez's story will also be told in a book slated to be released next month entitled, Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive.