The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Lie: Who Really Invented Our Favorite Spicy Chip?

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.Photo:
There are little white lies, "alternative facts," and then there are lies so flaming hot they might as well be a bag of spicy Cheetos.
At least, that seems to be the story of Richard Montañez, the alleged creator of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Montañez has spent years enjoying lucrative speaking engagements, event appearances for Target, Walmart, Harvard, and USC; writing a personal memoir —all of which has led to an upcoming biopic about his life as the entrepreneurial creator of the über popular snack.
Montañez's story is an inspirational one. He claimed he was working as a janitor at Frito-Lay's Rancho Cucamonga plant when a revolutionary idea hit him out of the blue: a chile-covered Cheeto produced for the masses. He contacted the chief executive of the company and pitched his idea in front of what he claimed were "hundreds" of leading executives — and the CEO himself. But alleged "corporate backstabbers" tried to sabotage Montañez, he said, for not staying in his lane. Still, the Mexican American out-hustled his haters, Frito-Lay turned his idea into a household classic, and the rest as "they" say is history. Fin!
The problem, of course, is that Montañez's account does not appear to be true — at all. According to a report from The Los Angeles Times, the concept was conceived by a "team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989" in Plano, Texas — at Frito-Lay's headquarters. The product was initially designed, per the same report, to compete with the spicy snacks that dominated the Midwest market at the time. 
"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 Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market."
So, how exactly did he get away with this decades-long con? While Montañez seems to have taken credit for a concept ideated nearly two decades earlier, no one at Frito-Lay deemed it pertinent to speak up or stop him. According to the same Times report, the majority of the team who developed the snack retired in the early aughts, and those who remained simply let the story "spread unchecked." It wasn't until former Frito-Lay employee Lynne Greenfeld asked the company in 2018 why she wasn't credited for naming the snack in 1989 that the company deemed it worthy of inquiry. It was then that Frito-Lay said it unearthed "evidence calling his account into question" and led the company to publicly acknowledge that he did not, in fact, come up with the flamin' hot idea. 
"We value Richard's many contributions to our company, especially his insight into Hispanic customers," the company's statement to The Times read, "but we do not credit the creation of Flamin' Hot Cheetos or any Flamin' Hot products to him."
But Montañez's story is still inspirational — he did work his way up the ranks, from janitor to a director focusing on marketing — and he did pitch ideas that, per The Times, likely "changed the path of his career." And while he seems to be caught in a Cheeto-crusted lie, producers of the upcoming biopic documenting his faux-creation of the Flamin' Hot Cheetos are reportedly moving forward. Why worry about the "bio" part when you can fully lean into the "pic" part, amiright?
As for Montañez, there seems to be no ill-will between Frito-Lay and their popular grifter. "That doesn't mean we don't celebrate Richard,” the company's statement continued, "but the facts do not support the urban legend."

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