The Girl in My Bathtub

For the last decade, Richard Montañez has been telling the story of how he invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos. The world has been eating it up.

It goes like this: He was working as a janitor at Frito-Lay's Rancho Cucamonga plant when he dreamed up a chile-covered Cheeto and believed in himself enough to call up the chief executive to pitch his spicy idea.

Corporate backstabbers tried to sabotage Montañez for stepping out of line, but he out-hustled them, driven by a hunger to succeed. Flamin' Hots became a runaway hit, and Montañez rose through the ranks and became an icon.

Watching his many recorded speaking engagements, it's easy to see why his story has taken off.

Montañez is a charismatic speaker, and his tale of a Mexican American underdog whose ingenuity conquered the corporate world is a rags-to-riches fable baked into the origin of a wildly popular snack.

Montañez has built a lucrative second career out of telling and selling this story, appearing at events for Target, Walmart, Harvard and USC, among others, and commanding fees of $10,000 to $50,000 per appearance.

His second memoir, Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive, is out in June from an imprint of Penguin Random House.

A biopic based on his life, to be directed by Eva Longoria and produced by Christian super-producer DeVon Franklin for Searchlight Pictures, is set to begin filming this summer. Both the book and the movie were sold after bidding wars — Montañez's story is undeniably hot.

There's just one problem: Montañez didn't invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos, according to interviews with more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, the archival record and Frito-Lay itself.

"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, in response to questions about an internal investigation whose existence has not been previously disclosed. "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."

Flamin' Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay's headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin' Hot name and shepherded the line into existence.

Not a Mexican janitor, but a white woman with an MBA.

The core of Montañez's story rested on the pitch meeting that he says changed his life, where he sold his idea of Flamin' Hot Cheetos directly to the Frito-Lay elite. In his new memoir, he lays out a dramatic scene, with more than 100 people, most of them "leading executives," assembled alongside the CEO in a conference room at the Rancho Cucamonga complex to witness his presentation.

The Times spoke with 20 people who worked at the Frito-Lay divisions responsible for new product development 32 years ago, when Flamin' Hot Cheetos were first extruded into existence. None recalls anything like the episode Montañez describes taking place.

In telling after telling, Montañez says he felt empowered to invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos after watching a motivational video from Enrico, the CEO of the company, that encouraged all Frito-Lay workers to "act like owners" and take charge of the business.

And time after time, he says that Enrico was the CEO whom he boldly called to pitch his idea and that Enrico flew out to Rancho Cucamonga weeks later to witness his pitch in person. In his new memoir, Montañez clearly restates this claim: Enrico's name appears 60 times in the text.

But Enrico did not work at Frito-Lay when Flamin' Hot products were developed.

He dropped out of school — but not, as he has claimed in past media appearances, after the fourth grade, or, as he claims in his new memoir, before the sixth. Montañez appears to have made it to at least the ninth grade — he is listed in the freshman class section of the Chaffey High yearbook of 1972 but disappears from the area's yearbooks after that.

Around [March 1994], Montañez began working on a line of products pitched specifically at the Latino market in the Los Angeles area: Sabrositas.

Siewczynski's recollection of the Sabrositas marketing campaign aligns with what Montañez describes in his memoir — though Montañez attaches his story to Flamin' Hot products, not the Sabrositas launch.

He remembers Montañez as a colorful, engaging storyteller, well liked by all of his co-workers at the plant. And he remembers a creation story, but one that focused on Lime and Chile Fritos, not Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

In his new memoir, Montañez writes that he tapped into the local network of women hosting Tupperware parties to get Flamin' Hot Cheetos out to customers in Southern California as a way to bolster the struggling test market.

Siewczynski recalls the same story — for Sabrositas.

After the investigation and his retirement, Montañez has also repeatedly posted to his social media accounts photographs of what he claims are original design materials for Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Many have recently been deleted.

One photograph, posted to Instagram in October 2019 but now deleted, shows four pieces of lined notebook paper, labeled "mild," "reg," "hot" and "extra hot," with Cheetos piled on top of each. At the bottom of one, Montañez signed his name and wrote the date "1988."

In another post, now deleted, he wrote that he worked on the Doritos Salsa Rio flavor in 1998 — a product that first hit test markets in 1987, according to Advertising Age articles from that year.

The producers of his biopic, despite being informed of problems by Frito-Lay in 2019, announced a cast for the movie in early May, and that the film would begin shooting this summer in New Mexico.

Longoria told Variety that it has been her "biggest priority to make sure we are telling Richard Montañez's story authentically."

Latinx advocates won't like it, but the story of the mind and machinations of a man obsessed with falsely claiming to be the inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos is a much more interesting film than an inspirational biopic.

Shattered Glass 2: Flamin' Hot Boogaloo.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.