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The World Has a Cheetos Controversy

Richard Montanez claims to be creator of Flamin' Hot variety, but company calls that 'urban legend'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 17, 2021 10:20 AM CDT

(Newser) – It's such a good story that Searchlight Pictures is currently making a movie based upon it. But an investigative piece by the Los Angeles Times suggests the tale about the origins of Flamin' Hot Cheetos is, in fact, too good to be true. The short version: Richard Montanez claims to have come up with the idea for the wildly popular spicy snack decades ago while working as a janitor for parent company Frito-Lay. Its success helped him rise through the company ranks to become a marketing executive, he maintains. In addition to the movie, Montanez has a second memoir coming out in June, whose title sums things up: Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive. The company tells the Times, however, that Montanez's claims are "urban legend." And the newspaper tracks down the people it thinks are actually responsible.

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The main one is Lynne Greenfeld, then a junior employee who came up with the Flamin' Hot name and marketing strategy in the late 1980s, per the Times. She asked Frito-Lay to investigate in 2018 when she caught wind of Montanez's claims, and the company backs her account. The Times found that Flamin' Hot products were in existence before Montanez's purported 1992 pitch to executives. "I'm not even going to try to dispute that lady, because I don't know," Montanez tells Variety, referring to Greenfeld. He says it's possible similar work was happening elsewhere in the company. "All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen." Some wiggle room: The Times talks to former Frito-Lay exec Al Carey, who insists Montanez was instrumental to Flamin' Hot. When shown documentation that products were on the market before Montanez came along, Carey "hedged his statement" and suggested they might have been regional products, per the Times. (Read more Cheetos stories.)

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