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As claimed in a Los Angeles Times piece over the weekend, Richard Montañez—who was previously said to have been working as a janitor at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant when he had the idea to pitch the company on a new flavor of Cheeto—“didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”
The piece, penned by Sam Dean and published on Sunday, pulls from interviews with more than 12 former Frito-Lay employees, as well as directly from the company. In a statement included in the Times piece, a rep for Frito-Lay—the PepsiCo subsidiary responsible for Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, and more—said that no records show Montañez to have been involved “in any capacity” with the Flamin’ Hot cheetos test market. Furthermore, the Frito-Lay rep added, multiple people associated with the test market said that Montañez was not involved.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend,” the rep said.
In 2018, Lynne Greenfeld—a junior employee who was assigned the responsibility of developing the Flamin’ Hot brand after its initial launch in 1989—reached out to the Frito-Lay team about Montañez. By the Times’ estimation, Montañez started taking credit for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the late 2000s. After Greenfeld reached out, an investigation—per a Frito-Lay spokesperson—resulted in the company saying they “do not credit” the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any other Flamin’ Hot product to Montañez.
On Wednesday, Frito-Lay released a statement in which they praised Montañez for contributing to the company for 40-plus years. Although the statement doesn’t specifically address the controversy surrounding the origins of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Frito-Lay recognized Montañez as “a passionate employee who” shared many ideas with senior leaders and was instrumental in expanding the Flamin’ Hot brand.
The statement read in part:
He did important work launching our Hispanic Business Unit and played a key role in accelerating the growth of our Flamin’ Hot Brand and other brands particularly through his Hispanic marketing efforts – efforts that helped grow our business and support our communities, especially in Los Angeles.
In L.A., Richard ran programs to help PepsiCo reach Hispanic consumers in bodegas, sponsored festivals, and was a voice for PepsiCo within the Latino community.
Internally, his creative leadership in our Hispanic-focused Employee Resource Group, Adelante, brought programs to life and engaged many associates.
He will always be a member of the PepsiCo Family.
In a statement to Variety in response to the Times report, Montañez said he was Frito-Lay’s “greatest ambassador” and offered an explanation as to why some documentation related to his story could be missing.
“I wasn’t a supervisor,” he said. “I was the least of the least. I think that might be one of the reasons why they don’t have any documentation on me. Why would they?”
NPR’s Sarah Aida Gonzalez, notably, said she received “more nuanced statements” from Frito-Lay regarding Montañez. According to Gonzalez, the company “did not directly deny” Montañez’s involvement in the creation of Hot Cheetos. Instead, the company suggested that two independent teams could have worked separately in pursuit of the same final product.
See Gonzalez’s thread below:
In 2019, Eva Longoria was announced to have signed on as director for the Flamin’ Hot movie, a Fox Searchlight-backed biopic about Montañez. As noted among this weekend’s developments, the producers of the film were reportedly notified of the latest discrepancies in 2019. Earlier this month, Jesse Garcia and Annie Gonzalez were announced to have joined Flamin’ Hot’s lead cast.