Inspiring Story Behind Flamin' Hot Cheetos Creator Was Hoax, Frito-Lay Says

UPDATE (5/17): Since the Los Angeles Times published its report, Richard Montanez disputed [...]

UPDATE (5/17): Since the Los Angeles Times published its report, Richard Montanez disputed Frito-Lay's statements and said he had never heard of Lynne Greenfeld, who worked in the company's Texas offices and came up with the name, until the Times' report. "In that era, Frito-Lay had five divisions," Montanez told Variety. "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."

NPR also published an interview with Montanez on May 12. In that segment, journalist Sarah Gonzalez reported that Frito-Lay doesn't "actually have a real record of how exactly Hot Cheetos came to be." There were teams of people working on creating a new Cheetos flavor, so Frito-Lay did not initially credit any one person for creating Flamin' Hot. "They do have a record of a hot Cheeto on the market in the Midwest around the exact same time that Hot Cheeto samples were coming out of Richard's plant," Gonzalez reported. "So they say maybe these two stories together led to the Hot Cheeto we see today."

Eva Longoria, who is directing a film about Montanez, has not commented on the situation. Montanez told Variety he does not believe the film will be affected by Frito-Lay's statements. He said his story is one about "overcoming adversity and racial discrimination," not just about Cheetos. Our original story follows.

Richard Montanez has been sharing the inspiring story of how he created the popular Flamin' Hot Cheetos flavor for Frito-Lay for the past decade. He was a janitor working at the Rancho Cucamonga, California, plant when he pitched his idea to the Frito-Lay CEO. Montanez said he faced adversity from others higher up on the corporate ladder, but his idea was still approved and Flamin' Hot Cheetos became an instant success. Montanez's story has been so inspiring to many that he earns thousands of dollars on the speaking circuit and Eva Longoria is making a movie about him. However, the story is not true, according to a Los Angeles Times report published on Sunday.

Flamin' Hot Cheetos were really created by a group of food professionals in 1989 at Frito-Lay's Plano, Texas, headquarters. The group wanted to create spicy snacks to compete with local snacks sold in Midwest cities. Lynne Greenfield was assigned the project and created the Flamin' Hot name. There is no record that Montanez was involved "in any capacity" in developing Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Frito-Lay said 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," Frito-Lay continued. "That doesn't mean we don't celebrate Richard... but the facts do not support the urban legend."

Frito-Lay launched a previously undisclosed internal investigation into Montanez's story in 2018 after Greenfield contacted the company because she saw he was taking credit for the idea. Montanez started doing so in the late 2000s, but few who worked at Frito-Lay in 1989 were still at the company to stop him. "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," the company said.

Producers on Longoria's movie and the publishers behind Montanez's next book, Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive, did not comment on the new revelations. Montanez himself has not commented yet either.

Montanez does still have an inspiring story to tell. He was born to a Mexican-American family in Ontario, California. He claimed he dropped out of school in either fourth or sixth grade, although the Times found he may have made it to at least ninth grade at Chaffey High. Montanez started working at the Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay plant in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, he was a machine operator, not a janitor. He continued climbing the corporate ladder until he left the Rancho Cucamonga plant in 2002 for a director-level position. During his career, he picked up several awards from community groups and PepsiCo executives. He retired in his early 60s.

In 2019, Longoria was hired to direct Flamin' Hot, a biopic based on Montanez's story, for Searchlight Pictures and producer DeVon Franklin. Frito-Lay's legal team sent producers a letter by Greenfeld in April 2019, months before Variety reported Longoria would direct. Longoria appears to be moving ahead with the project, as she cast Jesse Garcia in the lead role earlier this month.