Is 'Flamin' Hot' a True Story? All About the Disney+ Film About Flamin' Hot Cheetos
Here's everything to know about the Flamin' Hot Cheeto origin story, including the role Richard Montañez played and why it became a topic for debate
The true story behind Eva Longoria's debut feature film is one hot topic.
Titled Flamin' Hot, the biographical comedy-drama chronicles the story of Richard Montañez, the man who claims to have invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos while working as a janitor at a Frito-Lay factory in California in the late 1980s.
While Longoria's film highlights the rise of Montañez — an ex-con and former gang member turned hard-working family man — "having a hand in creating the No. 1 snack in the world," she previously told PEOPLE that her intent with the film was "never telling the history of the Cheeto."
Her clarification came amid longtime controversy surrounding the Flamin' Hot Cheeto origin story and who exactly invented the spicy, red-dusted snack that has evolved into a billion-dollar brand. According to Frito-Lay (the hot chip's parent company), Montañz began taking credit for Flamin' Hot Cheetos in the late 2000s, triggering a company-wide investigation in 2018.
In 2021, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative report based on the company's findings and poked holes in Montañez's story, alleging that many of the details he shared — via various speaking engagements at local business and philanthropy award ceremonies in the late 2000s — weren't true.
"None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot test market," Frito-Lay explained in a statement to the outlet. "That doesn't mean we don't celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend."
Meanwhile, Longoria — who deemed Montañz the "godfather of Hispanic marketing" when speaking with PEOPLE — used her film to tell the brand's beginnings from a different perspective, highlighting the Frito-Lay janitor who harnessed his Mexican American heritage to "become a marketing savant."
"The film Flamin' Hot is Richard Montañez's story, told from his point of view," Frito-Lay said in a statement to PEOPLE about the film. "His contributions to Frito-Lay are highlighted throughout the film, specifically his insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers and engage the Hispanic community, a legacy PepsiCo continues today. We are grateful to him for that and hope people enjoy the film."
Flamin' Hot is based on Montañez's 2013 memoir A Boy, A Burrito and A Cookie: from Janitor to Executive. The film — which also stars Tony Shalhoub, Dennis Haysbert, Emilio Rivera and Annie Gonzalez — begins streaming on Disney+ and Hulu on June 9.
Here's the true story behind Flamin' Hot, including the controversy surrounding its origin.
Related: 'Flamin' Hot' Sneak Peek: Eva Longoria Directs Her First Feature Film—a Feel-Good Rags to Riches Story
Who is Richard Montañez?
Richard Montañez was born to a Mexican-American family in Ontario, California. He's widely known for claiming he invented the Flamin' Hot Cheeto during his time working as a janitor at Frito-Lay's Rancho Cucamonga factory in 1976.
According to Montañez, he took action after a Cheeto machine broke down, bringing a batch of unflavored snacks to his home and seasoning them with spices similar to Mexican street corn.
"He's putting chili, cheese — all kinds of stuff on it for a buck," Montañez recalled to PEOPLE in 2017 of the vendor selling street corn he flagged down. "And I'm looking at it and I'm eating it, and there it was: the revelation that would change my life. I go, 'What if I put chili on the Cheetos?'"
He eventually pitched his creation to a chief executive at Frito-Lay. However, it was through his compelling storytelling and community-driven campaigns focused on the Latino market — combined with his ambition and determination to succeed — that Montañez successfully worked his way into an executive marketing position at the company.
Related: Eva Longoria Depicts a Janitor's Rise to Frito-Lay Marketing Executive in 'Flamin' Hot' Trailer
"Don't take your position for granted, regardless of what that position may be," Montañez wrote in his 2013 memoir A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie. "CEO or janitor, act like you own the company."
Montañez retired from Frito-Lay in March 2019 and has since published two memoirs about his time there: 2021's Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive and the aforementioned 2013 publication.
Longoria confided in Montañez ahead of making her directorial debut with the film Flamin' Hot. "My first meeting had to be with Richard and his family, because it was his family's story," the actress-turned-director previously told PEOPLE.
"'I knew it would be a Latina, a woman that would get this story,'" Longoria recalled Montañez saying to her when they met. "'And I never in a million years would've thought it was you. And now that you're standing here, I don't think there's anybody more perfect.'"
What is the controversy surrounding Flamin' Hot Cheetos' origin?
The origin of Flamin' Hot Cheetos became a controversial topic as Montañez began taking public credit for inventing the spicy chip in the late 2000s, which Frito-Lay later disputed.
In the Los Angeles Times investigative article published in May 2021, Frito-Lay alleged that Lynne Greenfeld (an employee at Frito-Lay's corporate office) developed Flamin' Hot Cheetos in 1989 — and the company credited her with the name and helping bring the product to market.
The publication reported that Greenfeld was the one who prompted the company-wide investigation in 2018 after hearing Montañez's story. They began an internal examination which included interviewing dozens of Frito-Lay employees and searching the "archival record." (Montañez retired amid the investigation.)
"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," Frito-Lay's statement to the Times continued.
While Montañez did not comment for the Times article, he spoke to Variety shortly after and defended his stance, claiming he didn't know Greenfeld. "I don't know what the other parts of the country, the other divisions — I don't know what they were doing," he said. "I'm not even going to try to dispute that lady, because I don't know. All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen."
He also revealed that he tested the seasoning for the Cheetos in his garage, claiming he was "pushed out" of testing the product in the market since he "wasn't a supervisor." He added, "I was the least of the least." That is why he believes Frito-Lay doesn't "have any documentation" on him.
Montañez didn't start taking public credit for inventing the chip until the late 2000s when most of the Flamin' Hot team had retired. His story spread unchecked until Greenfeld spoke up.
Related: Man Who Says He Invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos Refutes Frito-Lays' Claim That He 'Was Not Involved'
Did anyone at Frito-Lay back up Richard Montañez's claims of inventing Flamin' Hot Cheetos?
Al Carey, a Frito-Lay executive who's been with the company for 40 years and eventually became president and CEO of Frito-Lay North America in 2006, was one employee who played a crucial role in Montañez's Flamin' Hot story.
According to the Times article, "Carey appears to be the only Frito-Lay executive who worked at the company at the time of Flamin' Hot development to publicly endorse Montañez's version of events over the years."
In fact, Montañez recounted in his memoir that Carey encouraged him to pitch his idea to the CEO in the late 1980s and credited Montañez with creating the product, noting that the product was "definitely not out in the market" before their meeting.
While Carey acknowledged that it wasn't necessarily Montañez who invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos, citing "those guys in the plant" who "developed" the product, Carey said Montañez's charismatic personality and leadership qualities aided its success.
"They may have not invented the ingredient, but they invented the energy that goes behind this thing and the positioning, and then it becomes successful," noted Carey. "Without Richard, this thing would not be out there."
So, who invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos?
Shortly after the Los Angeles Times article was published, controversy and "confusion" resulted around Frito-Lay's stance on the Flamin' Hot Cheetos origin story — in part due to "misconstrued" information shared with the media.
In a statement shared with PEOPLE in May 2021, PepsiCo (Frito-Lay is a subsidiary of PepsiCo) acknowledged that "a range of emotions among our employees and consumers" resulted and put "a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montañez and the Latino community."
PepsiCo clarified who's credited with the invention of the spicy chip brand — and in its statement, attributed "the launch and success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez."
The parent company also praised Montañez for his work, being "far from being an urban legend" which was previously stated by Frito-Lay in the Times piece. "Richard had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today," the statement added.
Related: Eva Longoria Calls Directorial Debut 'Flamin' Hot' Film 'Emotional': 'I Don't Even Have Words'
The statement continued, "His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. To be clear, we have no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders."
While the statement went on to explain that a "separate division team" developed "a spicy product offering for Cheetos and other snack brands" that made it "on store shelves" (which included Flamin' Hot Cheetos), it noted that different divisions and their work streams "were not the best at communicating." Therefore, "a clear link" can not be drawn in crediting one creator.
The PepsiCo spokesperson concluded: "Richard is an important part of PepsiCo's history and the success of the company. He is an inspiration and his story cannot be belittled. We regret the confusion that has come from the recent speculation, but most importantly want Richard to know he is valued and cared for among PepsiCo's employees and we only wish him happiness and success."
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