“Flamin’ Hot” Claims to Be Based on a True Story, but It’s More Complicated

Everett Collection / Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Hulu’s new comedy film “Flamin’ Hot” bills itself as the story behind the invention of one of the most recognizable snacks in the world: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. At first glance, it has all the hallmarks of a “based on a true story” tale: a quirky idea that leads to an unlikely, made-for-the-movies rise from obscurity and a charismatic and determined hero at the center of it all. In reality, though, there’s less truth to the movie than you might expect.

Who Is Richard Montañez?

“Flamin’ Hot” is based on a memoir, “A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive,” by Richard Montañez. Montañez grew up in a working-class Mexican-American family in California, and he dropped out of school to work. He was eventually hired as a janitor at Frito-Lay, which is where his story supposedly really begins.

In his book, Montañez describes how an apparent machine error led him to create an iconic snack. According to his version of events, a machine broke down in the Cheetos line, resulting in a batch not getting dusted with the signature orange cheesy powder. Montañez writes that he took the “plain” Cheetos home and dusted them with chili powder instead, inspired by a street vendor in his neighborhood who sold Mexican street corn with lime and chili powder.

When his friends and family liked the taste of the new product, Montañez set out to pitch it to the CEO of Frito-Lay, Roger Enrico. Around that time, Enrico had sent out a video “telling all employees he wanted them to take ownership of the company,” according to CNBC, and Montañez writes, “I called him up, not knowing you weren’t supposed to call the CEO.” Securing a meeting, Montañez pitched the product, and the rest was supposedly history. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos became a phenomenon, and Montañez climbed the corporate ladder, eventually landing an executive position at PepsiCo and building a career as a speaker off of his rags-to-riches story.

In 2018, Fox Searchlight announced they would be producing a movie based on his life story. It seemed like the American Dream.

Or, at least, until a few years ago.

Did Richard Montañez Invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?

In 2021, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative report that appeared to debunk Montañez’s claims.

“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, published as part of the in-depth investigation. “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.. . . 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.”

According to the Times article, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were developed in 1989 through a fairly mundane process, born out of the need to compete with other brands that offered spicy snacks. Montañez did start at the company as a janitor, and he did pitch product ideas and eventually ascended to a director-level role in marketing, but an internal Frito-Lay investigation, as well as the accounts of many relevant employees around the same time, revealed that Montañez’s story of inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was not accurate. In fact, the “spicy snacks” project was first assigned to Lynne Greenfeld, a junior employee and new MBA grad who worked with several others to develop the products.

When the news broke in 2021, well after the “Flamin’ Hot” movie was in production, the movie’s creative team insisted that it was still a story worth telling.

“Did Richard embellish a little bit? Was his memory faulty here or there? Who knows,” screenwriter Lewis Colick told Variety. “The truth is the product.. . . I think enough of the story is true. The heart and soul and spirit of the story is true. He is a guy who should remain the face of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”

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