Richard Montañez, a former janitor-turned-top executive at Frito-Lay, has started to take public credit for inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos since 2007. In two memoirs and several paid speaking engagements, Montañez has claimed that he was working as a janitor at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant when he came up with the idea for a chile-covered Cheeto.
Frito-Lay, however, recently revealed that there’s no evidence to support Montañez’s claims that he was the inventor of the snack.
“None of our records shows that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay told the Los Angeles Times, in response to queries about an internal investigation whose existence has not been previously disclosed. “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.”
According to Frito-Lay, Flamin’ Hots were actually created by a team of professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. Though the development of Flamin’ Hots was a group effort, it was Lynne Greenfeld ― a junior employee with a freshly minted MBA ― who got the assignment to develop a brand that would compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. Greenfeld came up with the Flamin’ Hot name herself and was the one who led the line into existence.
When Montañez began calling himself as the creator of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, nobody at Frito-Lay stopped him, as most of the original Flamin’ Hot team, including Greenfeld, had already retired. In fact, Greenfeld was not aware of Montañez’s story until the summer of 2018 when she came across a blog post on the Esquire website.
Shocked to see someone taking credit for a product that she had worked on, Greenfeld ― who now goes by her married name, Lemmel ― reached out to an acquaintance who was still working at Frito-Lay, and that eventually led the company to conduct an internal investigation about Montañez’s claims.
“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 is “very proud” of shepherding the team that put Flamin’ Hots into the world.
However, shortly after Frito-Lay dismissed Montañez’s story as an urban legend, Montañez insisted that he’s the creator of the popular flavor line and threw shade at the snack food company.
“I was their greatest ambassador. But I will say this, you’re going to love your company more than they will ever love you, keep that in perspective,” Montañez told Variety. “In that era, Frito-Lay had five divisions. 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.”
Despite the controversy, producers of Flamin’ Hot, an upcoming film about Montañez’s story have no plans to ditch the movie. Eva Longoria, who is set to direct the biopic, previously told Variety that it has been her “biggest priority to make sure we are telling Richard Montañez’s story authentically.” Filming for the movie is scheduled to begin this summer in New Mexico.