Flamin' Hot Cheetos' disputed origin story: Richard Montañez goes from factory floor to boardroom

PepsiCo said Richard Montañez's story is 'far from being an urban legend'

A red-hot controversy is heating up over Richard Montañez's rags-to-riches tale of his purported creation, Flamin' Hot Cheetos

Montañez – who has become known as the "Godfather of Hispanic marketing" in promotional circles – grew up in what he says was the poorest section of Guasti, Calif., and never received a high school diploma. 

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Despite his Horatio Alger-like story, his claim that he is the creator of a multibillion-dollar product, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, detailed in his new book, "Flamin Hot. The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive," is causing controversy in the snack world. 

If you ask PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, the origin of its brand doesn't fall entirely on Montañez. Instead, it attributes "the launch and success of Flamin Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo" at the time, the company told FOX Business in a statement. 

The two competing versions  — one from Montañez and another from PepsiCo regarding who deserves the credit — are stirring up so much buzz, even Hollywood is eyeing it for a film, according to Variety

As Montañez tells it, it is the very snack that catapulted him from his role as a janitor working on the ground floor of the Frito-Lay factory in California to the director of multicultural marketing and sale for the United States.

To get there, Montañez recalls having to "act like an owner" – not just a janitor. 

"Here I am, an uneducated Latino, working the lowest job in a factory and I call the highest-level executive, the CEO. And together we became friends and we changed the company," Montañez told FOX Business. 

Richard Montanez (Tribesmen Pictures )

In his book, Montañez claimed he decided to help the company amid a time when it had been suffering from lackluster sales. Hours were being cut and "an atmosphere of fear spread through the ranks," he wrote. 

Production was down, which meant salaries were being cut, and Montañez said he eventually found himself having to apply for food stamps to make sure his family could survive – a harrowing reminder of his childhood where he had to rely on government assistance. 

"The generational cycle of poverty that I was determined to escape suddenly seemed to have dragged us back into survival mode," he wrote. 

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To help, Montañez claimed he followed a delivery driver around and helped arrange the product on store shelves to learn more about the business beyond production. 

At their last stop, he passed the aisle with all the "spices popular with Hispanic consumers," such as crushed chili powder, ground cumin, large bags of dried oregano and dried chili peppers of different grades and varieties. On the other side, he noticed the Frito-Lay snacks, but "none of them offered any real spices or flavors that tasted authentic to people here in my community," he wrote.  

One week later, Montañez passed a vendor right outside the store selling roasted corn on the cob featuring butter, salt and pepper, grated white cheese, chili powder, fresh cilantro, leaves, lime juice, salsa or hot sauce. 

The corn, he said, reminded him of a Cheeto. 

"What would happen if I put chili on a Cheeto?" he recalled telling his wife, Judy. 

After filling a garbage bag full of Cheetos without cheese powder, the duo went to work immediately testing "several versions" of Judy’s chili, Montañez claimed in his book. 

The final product – eventually dubbed Flamin' Hot Cheetos – was a hit amongst friends and some coworkers, with many asking where they could get more, he said. 

Eventually, Montañez said he "took a chance and nervously, against many odds, broke ranks" to call the then-CEO of PepsiCo, Roger Enrico.

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Enrico, according to Montañez, made it a priority to see what he had concocted. 

And although PepsiCo doesn't give all the credit to Montañez, the company said his story is "far from being an urban legend."

"Richard had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today," the company said in a statement. "His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos." 

PepsiCo also noted that it has "no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders." 

According to the Los Angeles Times, Lynne Greenfeld, who had been an employee at Frito-Lay’s corporate office in Texas, helped to develop the brand back in 1989. Not only did she create the name but she helped bring the product to U.S. markets, according to the report. 

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However, Montañez told FOX Business he had never heard of Greenfeld. 

"I never met her," he said. "That was the first time I had ever heard her name." 

Montañez claims in his book that he never stopped fighting to bring his product to the market even when he was faced with "rampant racism, both overt and covert." 

Eventually, he made his way to become the first Mexican American to be promoted to an executive role at PepsiCo, according to his book. 

At the end of the day, Montañez says the competing stories don't bother him nor do they deter him from wanting to share his story.

"I didn't really care because I know the story," he said. "The individuals that were there, Mr. Carey [Albert P. Carey], who later became CEO of Frito-Lay and Pepsi, out of his own mouth he said, ‘Without Richard Montañez there is no Hot Cheetos. He created it.’" 

He went on to explain how Enrico's secretary at the time still remembers the story in detail and the moment she set up the meeting between Montañez and Enrico. 

"There are so many individuals out there to support the story," he said.