Richard Montañez really likes his superlatives: "I'm probably the most uneducated, brilliant person you will ever meet," he laughed.
There's one. Here's another: "I'm known as the Godfather of Hispanic branding!"
Why Hispanic branding? Because Montañez claims to be the Willy Wonka behind one of the spiciest and best-selling snack foods on the market: Flamin' Hot Cheetos. It's no small thing, became Flamin' Hot Cheetos are an industry well beyond just the snack food aisle. They are featured in fashion shows, internet memes, even recipes for Thanksgiving turkeys, and they remain front-and-center in stores, along with their traditional Cheeto brethren.
The Genesis tale, as told by Montañez, goes like this: he and his wife, Judy, invented the spicy sensation right in their own kitchen, back when Montañez was a factoryworker at a Frito-Lay plant in Southern California.
"My whole life I'd been told that I was mentally incapable, that I was mentally challenged, because I thought different," he said. "So, that kind of stuck with me. A great idea can come from anywhere, any place, anyone."
PepsiCo, Frito-Lay's parent-company, initially went along with the origin story, at least publicly. After all, this boot-straps kind of tale was pretty good for the brand. Montañez even touted Flamin' Hots in the Blue Room at the White House.
But Montañez said PepsiCo warned him to keep those superlatives in check. He told correspondent Lee Cowan, "They would even tell me, 'Richard, in your speeches you need to say it was a team effort.' But in reality it never was. If you wanna go ahead and say it was a team effort, I'll give you that, you know, but in my heart, it had nothing to do with the team."
He was promoted up the corporate ladder during his career, retiring from Frito-Lay in 2019 as a director working on Hispanic marketing. But it wasn't an easy trip to the top, he said: "I remember one director said, 'You're never gonna get in marketing. You have to have an MBA. You don't even have a high school diploma, so give it up.'"
Cowan asked, "Did you think it was racism?"
"I think it was a type of racism, you know, color, but also pedigree."
He sat down to write a book about his career as the snack food's creator, "Flamin Hot."
But on the eve of its release, the Los Angeles Times published the results of a year-long investigation – yes, a reporter spent a year digging into Flamin' Hots! – which showed that the popular snack food we know today was more than likely developed at Frito-Lay's headquarters in Plano, Texas, not the humble kitchen of the Montañez family.
"Maybe they did," Montañez said. "What I had was what I had, so I don't know what you're talking about."
Some members of the team that said it developed the recipe for Flamin' Hots are in fact flamin' hot mad at Montañez for taking credit. That said, it's not a debate that will crumble Western civilization – but there is something instructive about his story that many, especially in the Latino community, say is worth hearing.
Before the Cheeto dust hit the fan, Montañez took Cowan to his old neighborhood, on the other side of the tracks, as he puts it. As poor as he was, he knew when he got his first job at Frito-Lay as a janitor, he better make it count: "It was my ticket. It was my chance. If I got that job, I would be set for life. I can go from the fields into the factories."
He was always thinking, mainly about ways to include people like him who loved traditional Mexican spices. But what to put those spices on? One day he saw a street vendor selling Elotes – corn sprinkled with chili powder. "I looked at it, I'm, like, 'Oh my God, that looks like a Cheeto!'" he said.
Not knowing (or perhaps not caring) about the consequences, Montañez said he cold-called the CEO of Frito Lay directly, a man named Roger Enrico.
Cowan asked, "Did you ever think twice about dialing that phone?"
"Yeah, but I didn't know what protocol was – you know, I don't think I could spell the word at the time, let alone know what it meant, you know?" Montañez laughed.
"Were you amazed that he picked up the phone?"
Enrico died in 2016, but "Sunday Morning" talked to his executive assistant, who remembers the call like it was yesterday. After all, it was pretty extraordinary. "Who let the janitor call the CEO?" Montañez said.
His bold pitch to the top executives seems to have happened. The question is, when did it happen? Montañez said he made that call in 1991. But by that time, Pepsi says it had already trademarked the name Flamin' Hot – and was test marketing the product in select cities.
If he knew that, why would he pitch a product already in existence? If he didn't know it, then maybe it's a case of great minds think alike – a worthy idea that someone else had before him.
In the first of several statements to a hungry press, PepsiCo said, "We do not credit the product creation to him and him alone," but later stated, "We attribute the launch and success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez."
So, where does that leave us?
His book detailing his achievements – minus the questions about them – is still being released next week. "I never thought I'd have as much as I have now, so I'm very thankful," he told Cowan.
And there's a post-script: Actress Eva Longoria is set to direct an upcoming film about Montañez's life.
A huckster, or a hero? One thing is clear: Richard Montañez is not about to apologize for what he thinks made him a flamin' hot success.
Cowan asked, "Would you do it all over again?"
"Absolutely, absolutely," he replied.
For more info:
- Flamin' Hot Cheetos (PepsiCo)
- "Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive" by Richard Martinez (Portfolio), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available June 15 via Amazon and Indiebound
Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Remington Korper.