Is Flamin’ Hot a true story?
Hulu’s new comedy Flamin’ Hot bills itself as the story behind the invention of one of the world’s most popular snack foods: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. At first glance, it has all the hallmarks of a story based on true events: a whimsical idea that leads to an unlikely made-for-the-movie emergence from darkness, centered around a charismatic and determined hero at the heart of it all. In reality, however, the film is less true than one would expect.
Who is Richard Montañez?
Flamin’ Hot is based on the 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 dropped out of school to work. Eventually he was hired as a caretaker at Frito-Lay, which is supposedly where his story actually 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 being dusted with the signature orange cheese 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 introduce it to Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico. Around that time, according to CNBC, Enrico had sent out a video “in which he told all the employees that he wanted them to take over the company,” and Montañez writes, “I called him not knowing that you don’t call the CEO should.” Montañez secured a meeting, introduced 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 himself with his story from rags to riches a career as a public speaker.
In 2018 Fox Searchlight announced they would be producing a film based on his life story. It seemed like the American dream.
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 invalidate Montañez’s claims.
“None of our records indicate Richard was involved in any capacity with the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay wrote in a statement to The Times released as part of the in-depth investigation. “We interviewed several employees involved with the test market, and all indicated that Richard was in no way involved with the test market… We value Richard’s numerous contributions to our company, particularly his insights into Hispanic consumers,” but we write to him does not authorize the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any other Flamin’ Hot product.
According to the Times article, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were created in 1989 through a fairly mundane process that arose out of a need to compete with other brands that offered hot snacks. While Montañez started out as a janitor at the company, promoting product ideas and eventually rising to a director-level marketing position, an internal Frito-Lay investigation and the reports of many relevant employees around the same time revealed that Montañez’s story about the invention of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was incorrect. In fact, the Hot Snacks project was initially assigned to Lynne Greenfeld, a young associate and recent MBA graduate, who worked with several others to develop the products.
When the news broke in 2021, long after the film “Flamin’ Hot” was in production, the film’s creative team insisted it was still a story worth telling.
“Did Richard embellish a bit? Was his memory flawed 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, soul and spirit of the story is true. He’s a guy who should be the face of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”