Richard Montanez loves superlatives. He laughed, “I’m probably most uneducated and brilliant person you’ll ever meet.” Another: “I am known as the Godfather in Hispanic branding!”
Why Hispanic branding? Because Montanez claims that he is the Willy Wonka behind Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, one of the most popular and spicy snack foods on market. This is no small feat. Flamin’ Hot Cheesetos have become an industry that goes beyond the snack food aisle. They’re featured in fashion shows and internet memes.
Montanez tells the Genesis story as follows: He and Judy invented the spicy sensation in their kitchen back in 1970, when Montanez worked at a Frito Lay plant in Southern California.
He said that throughout my life, I had been told I was mentally incompetent, that I was mentally disabled, and that I thought differently. That kind of stuck with my mind. Anywhere, anytime, anyone can have a great idea.
PepsiCo was Frito-Lay’s parent-company and initially agreed with the origin story. This boot-straps story was a good one for the brand. Montanez also mentioned Flamin’ Hots at the Blue Room of the White House.
Montanez claimed that PepsiCo had warned him not to use superlatives. Lee Cowan was told by Montanez that PepsiCo would tell him, “Richard, in all your speeches, you have to state it was a team effort.” It was not. You can say that it was a team effort. But in reality, it was not.
The Los Angeles Times published the results from a year-long investigation. Yes, a reporter spent a whole year looking into Flamin’ Hots! This revealed that Flamin’ Hots was most likely created at Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano Texas and not at the Montanez family’s humble kitchen.
Montanez stated, “Maybe they did.” “What I had was what it was, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Some of the members of the Flamin’ Hots team who claimed to have developed the Flamin’ Hots recipe are actually flamin’ hot mad at Montanez because he took credit. It’s not an argument that will end Western civilization, but many Latinos find Montanez’s story instructive.
Montanez took Cowan back to his neighborhood before the Cheeto dust got the fan. He was poor, but he knew that he could get his first job at Frito-Lay, as a janitor. It was my chance. That job would have been my career. I can move from the fields to the factories.”
Cowan asked: “Didn’t you think twice about calling that phone?”
“Yeah but I didn’t know what protocol was – you know, I don’t think I can spell the word at that time let alone understand what it meant. Montanez laughed.
“Were your surprised that he picked up his phone?”
Enrico passed away in 2016. “Sunday morning” spoke to his executive assistant who still remembers the call as if it were yesterday. It was quite extraordinary. “Who allowed the janitor to call the CEO?” Montanez said.
It seems that his bold pitch to top executives did indeed happen. The question is how did this happen? Montanez stated that he made the call in 1991. Pepsi claims that Flamin’ Hot was trademarked by the company at the time and was testing marketing the product in selected cities.
He would not pitch a product that was already in existence if he knew this. It’s possible that he didn’t know this, or maybe it’s just a case where great minds think alike. He may have a good idea that someone else has.
PepsiCo made the first of many statements to a hungry media. It stated that “we do not credit product creation to him or him alone.” However, later, it said that “We attribute launch and success Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as well as other products to several people at PepsiCo including Richard Montanez.”
What does this leave us with?
His book, which details his accomplishments and answers questions about them, will be released next week. Cowan was told by him that he never imagined he’d be able to have the amount he has now.
There’s also a sequel: Eva Longoria, an actress, will direct a film about Montanez’s life.
Is he a huckster or a hero One thing is certain: Richard Montanez will not apologize for the success he believes he has had.
Cowan asked, “Would it be possible to do it all over again?”
He replied, “Absolutely, absolutely.”