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Flamin’ Hot Fraud? Inside the Complicated History of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto

”The facts do not support the urban legend,“ Frito-Lay tells the LA Times

The viral origin story of how the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto came to be invented (and if it was the created by former Frito-Lay janitor Richard Montañez) is a hotly contested subject right now.

Richard Montañez has been telling people for almost a decade that he’s the unlikely mastermind behind the creation of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto brand, but a new exposé in the Los Angeles Times reports Montañez actually had nothing to do with the idea.

But NPR’s Planet Money reporter Sarah Gonzalez also spoke to Frito-Lay who told her that “a Richard Montañez product” was indeed developed at Frito-Lay’s plant in Rancho Cucamonga. Frito-Lay told Gonzalez and NPR “he was a part of it. Yes. Sure,” referring to Montañez’s story of how he came to create the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto.

Gonzalez’s full thread on her investigation into the origins of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, which she says NPR continues to explore, is linked below.

But the LA Times story paints a completely different picture. According to the LA Times, Montañez’s story — that he rose through the ranks at Frito-Lay from janitor to executive after pitching the idea for the spicy snack to PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico and a room of over 100 suits — isn’t true.

Frito-Lay told the LA Times, “None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market. 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. That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard,” Frito-Lay continued, “but the facts do not support the urban legend.”

The Times reported that a woman named Lynne Greenfeld was responsible for leading the creation and rollout of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in 1989. Greenfeld said she alerted Frito-Lay in 2018 when she got word of Montañez’s stories that he created the snack.

Greenfeld told the LA Times she was “very proud” of her work on the snacks and added, “It is disappointing that 20 years later, someone who played no role in this project would begin to claim our experience as his own and then personally profit from it.”

Still, the truth about the origins of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto and Montañez’s viral rags-to-riches story — even if it’s fake — is too captivating to ignore. Montañez has capitalized on his fame, traveling the country giving speeches that command fees up to $50,000. He’s also written two memoirs, the second of which is called “Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive” and comes out this June.

Montañez is also the subject of a new biopic, directed by Eva Longoria for Searchlight Pictures. The film doesn’t have a release date yet but Longoria has already set a cast.

The LA Times said Frito-Lay reached out to Longoria and Searchlight in 2019 to inform them of “problems” with the story, but didn’t hear back.

Representatives for Longoria didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Former Cheetos product manager Ken Lukaska told the Times, “If that story existed, believe me, we would have heard about it. This guy should run for office if he’s that good at fooling everyone.”