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Flamin' Hot Cheetos origin story debunked as 'urban legend' ahead of Eva Longoria-directed biopic

·4 min read
Flamin' Hot Cheetos origin story debunked as 'urban legend' ahead of Eva Longoria-directed biopic

UPDATE: PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay, released a lengthy statement Friday that did not dispute any of the facts of the Los Angeles Times report about the origin of Flamin' Hot Cheetos but said in part that "the information we shared with the media has been misconstrued by some, which resulted in confusion around where we stand, a range of emotions among our employees and consumers and a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montañez and the Latino community." The company added that Montañez "is an important part of PepsiCo's history and the success of the company."

Eva Longoria also posted links to and screenshots of news coverage of PepsiCo's statement on social media Friday, including a screenshot that said, "We cannot let companies erase the contributions of Latinos to their success," and another that said, "Our stories matter!"

ORIGINAL STORY: Richard Montañez, the subject of an upcoming biopic directed by Eva Longoria, is facing allegations from his former employer that he fabricated his story of inventing Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

For years, Montañez claimed to have pitched his idea for the spicy snack to the company's chief executive while he was working as a janitor in a Frito-Lay plant. As the story goes, the product's ultimate success propelled Montañez's rise through the corporate ranks.

He also built a career out of retelling his story, appearing at events for Target, Walmart, Harvard, USC, and others, while raking in fees of $10,000 to $50,000 per appearance, according to an investigative piece published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times. His second memoir, Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive, hits shelves in June.

But according to a dozen former Frito-Lay employees interviewed by the Times, Montañez was not involved in the creation of Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

"None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot test market," Frito-Lay said in a statement to the Times. "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.

"That doesn't mean we don't celebrate Richard," the statement continued, "but the facts do not support the urban legend."

The Times reported that the product was actually created by snack food professionals starting in 1989, working at the company's headquarters in Plano, Texas. A junior employee named Lynne Greenfeld came up with the Flamin' Hot name and ushered the line into existence.

Greenfeld contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 after seeing that Montañez was taking credit for the Cheetos line, which triggered a company investigation, according to the Times.

Frito-Lay shared the conclusion of its investigation with the outlet: "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."

Presley Ann/Getty Images; Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images; Eva Longoria and Richard Montanez

Prior to the investigation, it seems nobody at Frito-Lay attempted to stop Montañez from taking credit for the snack's creation. Most of the Flamin' Hot team had retired by the 2000s, and the few who remained let his story spread unchecked.

Representatives for Frito-Lay did not immediately respond to EW's request for comment.

According to the Times, Frito-Lay informed producers of his biopic about the problems with his story in 2019. Despite the warning, a cast for the movie was announced in early May.

Representatives for Longoria and Devon Franklin, whose production company is co-producing the film, did not immediately respond to EW's requests for comment.

Speaking to EW about the biopic in 2020, Longoria described it as "a very beautiful story" about Montañez's "journey and how he succeeded in a world that tells you no."

"There's an immense pressure I feel about [Flamin' Hot] because I've got to get it right," she added.

In a statement to EW, Portfolio Books, the publisher of Montañez's memoir, said the company is "proud to stand with" the businessman and will release the book as planned. The statement also described Montañez as "part of the effort that resulted in the success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos."

"During his 40+ years at Frito Lay, Richard Montanez repeated the story of his involvement with this product hundreds of times, in speeches, books, and media interviews," said Adrian Zackheim, the VP, president, and publisher of Portfolio. "Only now, just as his book is announced, are we suddenly hearing an alternate narrative about the development of this product, which seeks to diminish Richard's contribution and to question the details of long-ago events."

Montañez is also sticking to his story. His spokesperson tells EW that because he was a general utility machine operator and janitor at the time, none of his contributions were documented.

"Richard is going to continue to stand on his story. After 42 years, he doesn't understand why Frito-Lay's taking the position they're taking," they added.

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