Richard Montañez is speaking out following claims by Frito-Lay that he did not invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
“I was their greatest ambassador,” Montañez tells Variety of Frito-Lay. “But I will say this, you’re going to love your company more than they will ever love you, keep that in perspective.”
Montañez, who worked his way up from a janitor at the company to a marketing executive, has a book coming out about his rags-to-riches story, and is the subject of an upcoming Searchlight Pictures biopic directed by Eva Longoria. However, an article on Sunday in the Los Angeles Times disputed Montañez’s role in the beloved snack’s invention, backed up by statements from Frito-Lay.
“None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay wrote 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. That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend.”
Instead, the Times article reports that a junior employee at Frito-Lay’s corporate office in Texas named Lynne Greenfeld was assigned to develop the Flamin’ Hot brand in 1989. According to the Times, she came up with the name, and helped bring the product to markets all over the U.S. Greenfeld contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 after hearing Montañez’s story, triggering an internal investigation that concluded with the allegation that Montañez is not the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
“We value Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers, but we do not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products to him,” Frito-Lay said in a statement to the Times.
Montañez disputes Frito-Lay’s statements and the Times article, telling Variety that he has not heard of Greenfeld until now and noting that they worked for different divisions of the company. Representatives for Frito-Lay did not immediately respond to Variety‘s multiple requests for comment.
“In that era, Frito-Lay had five divisions,” Montañez says. “I don’t know what the other parts of the country, the other divisions — I don’t know what they were doing. I’m not even going to try to dispute that lady, because I don’t know. All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen.”
Montañez alleges that he began pitching product ideas to Frito-Lay in the late ’80s, while working as a janitor for the company.
“Frito-Lay had something called the method-improvement program, looking for ideas. That kind of inspired me, so I always had these ideas for different flavors and products,” Montañez says. “The only difference in what I did, is I made the product, instead of just writing the idea on a piece of paper and sending it. They would forward over those products to the appropriate people and I didn’t know, because I was just a frontline worker.”
It wasn’t until 1991, Montañez says, that he pitched his product ideas in-person to former Frito-Lay executive Al Carey and then-PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, in two separate meetings. Carey also verified some of Montañez’s involvement in the Flamin’ Hot line to LAT.
But, the Times reports that Enrico did not yet work for the company when the Flamin’ Hot brand was developed. According to the Times, Enrico’s “move to Frito-Lay was announced in December 1990, and he took over control at the beginning of 1991 — nearly six months after Flamin’ Hots were already out in the test market.”
When asked about the test markets, Montañez says that he was largely “pushed out” of that process. He says that Frito-Lay sent one scientist to help him with his own test market, but by that time, they had already developed their own seasoning.
“When we created our seasoning, it wasn’t at the plant. It was in my kitchen, in my garage. Then we sent it to headquarters,” Montañez says. “When headquarters did a new product development, they sent a whole team. With me, they sent one scientist. By this time, they already had seasoning, because they’re not going to use something that made someone sick. We made 2,000 cases. We shipped it to the zones, to the warehouses where they were going to test market. By this time, they had pushed me out.”
Montañez says Frito-Lay’s statement that McCormick had already developed the Flamin’ Hot seasoning by December 1989 “makes sense” with the timeline he remembers. As for the discrepancies between his and Frito-Lay’s stories, Montañez believes that lack of documentation due to his low-tier job is to blame.
“Nobody was telling me, ‘This is how executives work.’ I wasn’t a supervisor, I was the least of the least,” Montañez says. “I think that might be one of the reasons why they don’t have any documentation on me. Why would they?”
Montañez’s representative, Steven Montañez, added: “The recipe and the flavors that Richard came up with, of course when they were ready to get mass produced, Frito-Lay tweaked them and did whatever they needed to do to get them market ready. But Richard never got to be part of it because his position had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t a marketer, he wasn’t in R&D, he wasn’t in sales — he was a general utility machine operator, which is a janitor.”
As for the upcoming film centered on Montañez, the Times said that its producers were informed of the results of the Frito-Lay investigation in 2019, but decided to move forward. On May 4, the lead cast members of the biopic were announced: Jessie Garcia and Annie Gonzalez.
Montañez says he is “not concerned” about the movie being affected by Frito-Lay’s claims. Representatives for Longoria had no comment on the matter, and representatives for Franklin and Searchlight Pictures did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.
“I think that [the film is] going to inspire people to do the right thing. Don’t make the mistake Montañez made. Document everything,” he says. “The story isn’t really about Hot Cheetos. The story is about overcoming adversity and racial discrimination.”