The Flamin' Hot Cheetos Origin Story That Frito-Lay Called A Myth

You may have smiled at the story — decades ago, Richard Montañez, a janitor at Frito-Lay, had a million-dollar idea. He took home a batch of unseasoned Cheetos, dusted them in spices and chili powder, and knowing he was onto a very special snack, boldly pitched his idea to a chief executive at the company. Soon after, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were a Frito-Lay boon, Montañez went on to become a company vice president, and his inspiring story made him an author, a motivational speaker charging tens of thousands for appearances, and even the subject of an upcoming biopic directed by Eva Longoria (via Variety).

"There's just one problem," reports the Los Angeles Times. "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." The now-retired employee began taking credit for creating the snack in the late 2000s, decades after it was developed in 1989. No one questioned him until 2018. So, how did this happen?

Frito-Lay records show that Flamin' Hot Cheetos were actually invented by Lynne Greenfeld, not Richard Montañez

A fresh Frito-Lay hire in 1989, Lynne Greenfeld's first assignment was to develop a competitor with other spicy snacks on the market, the Los Angeles Times reports. She delivered, coming up with the Flamin' Hot name and collaborating on the flavor and branding for spicy Fritos, Cheetos, and Lays. By 1992, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were being crunched throughout the country. Greenfeld, now retired, contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 when she heard that Montañez was taking credit for the snack and sparked an internal investigation.

Frito-Lay's findings showed that Montañez was not "involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot test market," the company said in a statement to the publication. Flaws in Montañez's years-old story are only now coming to light. He claims he pitched the Cheetos idea to executive Roger Enrico, for example, but Enrico didn't join Frito-Lay until after the product was being tested in 1991. However, some elements of Montañez's story are true — he did rise in the Frito-Lay ranks from a factory worker to a marketing executive, and he did help develop products including Flamin' Hot Popcorn, Lime and Chile Fritos. He just didn't make Flamin' Hot Cheetos, but, based on his recent Instagram post, he's sticking to his story.