For two decades, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos has been one of the most popular snacks in America. In recent years its legend has grown, as word spread that they were invented by Richard Montañez, a Mexican-American janitor at Frito-Lay who went on to become a company executive. The story made Montañez something of a Latino icon, with two memoirs and a soon-to-be-released biopic based on his life. But when a journalist at the L.A. Times started looking into this feel-good story, he found a very different tale.
The man who didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (Sam Dean, L.A. Times)
What the anger over Flamin’ Hot Cheetos origin story is really about (Gustavo Arellano, L.A. Times)
Was the Times too hard on a Latino icon who exaggerated his role in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? (Letters To The Editor, L.A. Times)
For Latinos and the L.A. Times, a complicated past — and a promising future (Gustavo Arellano, L.A. Times)
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Dance Hall" by Hans Erickson
- "Silhouette" by Eric Anderson
- "Hennepin" by James Buckley and Brian Bradley
- "Like Fire" by Jacob Gossel
- "Cortado" by Eric Anderson
Photo courtesy of Andres O'Hara.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
Gustavo Arellano: I debunked the story of Glenn Bell and how he got the idea for Taco Bell. I debunked the story of Doritos. I blew apart the claim by Taco John's the fast food taco chain based in Wyoming, who has a trademark to Taco Tuesday. I destroyed Taco John's claim by going into the archives and telling the true story of the term, Taco Tuesday. I live for these things. But when it came to this one, I just couldn't cast out on it. It was just too good of a feel good story. I assumed it was real. How could it not be real?
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. The person you just heard is Gustavo Arellano. He’s a columnist at the LA Times, and author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. For years, he’s been obsessed with finding the stories of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, who haven’t gotten credit for the foods they introduced, foods that have become part of American culture. And there was one food in particular that I wanted to talk to him about.
Dan Pashman: I ate Flamin' Hot Cheetos for the first time today.
Gustavo Arellano: What?! All these years later?
Dan Pashman: I know, I know. But, you know, look, as a consummate journalist, I felt it was my obligation to eat them some before I spoke to you. And I thought they were amazing. They were really good.
Gustavo Arellano: What did you like about them?
Dan Pashman: I mean, they were spicy to my palate.
Gustavo Arellano: Sure.
Dan Pashman: But sweet, salty in a way that just made me want to keep eating them. And like I've eaten my share of Takis — the spicy Takis to me are just painfully sharp. There's something about them. They're just too hot.
Gustavo Arellano: No. That’s what make them so good. I like the Takis because they have the sharpness of the heat, but also they have that layer of citrus. You know, like the lime flavor to it [Dan Pashman: Yeah.] that makes them almost tart because they're so sharp on that.
Dan Pashman: Yes.
Gustavo Arellano: But for me, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, it's flavorful. Don't get me wrong. It's not spicy at all. I've never understood people who say, "Oh, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, it burns me!", or like — I have never seen it, but then again I’m a Mexican. We’re used to this level of spice.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about the first time you ate a Flamin' Hot Cheeto.
Gustavo Arellano: I can't even remember because, look, I'm a Doritos man. OK? So if you're a Mexican, it doesn't matter what the flavor is, you have to put hot sauce on it, whether it's Tapatio, Valentina, some Tabasco in a pinch. And the Doritos, the way the hot sauce cascades across the chips, the Doritos chips, it gives it nice even flavor.
Dan Pashman: I would probably take regular Cheetos over regular Doritos because of the crunch. Not just more more overall crunch, but I like that there's different size and shape pieces in the Cheetos. So you get variation from one bite to the next.
Gustavo Arellano: Cheetos? I always like Cheetos are a little bit cheesier, but they just didn't have that crunch that Doritos have.
Dan Pashman: It shocks me, Gustavo, that you would say you like Doritos better than Cheetos because Doritos are crunchier? I feel like Doritos have a brittle crunch but Cheetos have a deep down bass kinda crunch that really rocks me.
Gustavo Arellano: I don't know. I grew up with them. So I think you always associate what's wonderful and great with your childhood. I put more significance to the first time I ate Cool Ranch Doritos than I ever did Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Maybe I’m a weirdo like that but that's also what happened when I was a kid.
Dan Pashman: Clearly, Gustavo and I could debate Cheetos vs. Doritos vs. Takis all day. But I take his point. The snacks of your childhood stick with you even into adulthood. And for a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and 2000s, that snack was Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It was one of the first mainstream snack foods that was marketed as "spicy". Flamin' Hot Cheetos were a hit when they launched, and just got more and more popular over the years. Kids began competing to see who could survive eating more of the spicy snack. And that competition created a sort of moral panic.
CLIP (REPORTER 1): Spicy, flaming, hot — that's the name of the game when it comes to chips.
CLIP (REPORTER 2): The snack goes wildly popular with kids, with it's own Facebook fan page.
CLIP (REPORTER 3): School districts in California and New Mexico are trying to ban them.
CLIP (REPORTER 4): Right here in Central Texas these firey favorites are sending dozens of kids to the emergency room.
CLIP (REPORTER 5): If it's hot and spicy, it's gonna stay hot and spicy the whole way it goes through your system.
CLIP (REPORTER 6): These kids will eat, you know, just a ridiculous amount of the Flamin' Hot Cheetos and then they'll realize their stool is red.
CLIP (REPORTER 7): What would happen to me if I ate this whole bag?
CLIP (KID 1): You have the runs.
CLIP (KID 2):Your booty might be burning.
Dan Pashman: Lots of kids got the runs, as in they kept running right back to the store to get more. In 2019, Adweek reported that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was the nation’s favorite snack brand for the third year in a row. And one place where it’s especially beloved: Southern California.
Sam Dean: It's like an extremely popular SoCal thing. There's tons of places where you can get like a Flamin' Hot Cheetos burrito or quesadilla in L.A.
Dan Pashman: This is Sam Dean.
Sam Dean: Yeah, I'm Sam Dean. I'm a business reporter at the L.A. Times.
Dan: And Sam's right. At Locolotes, in Downtown L.A., you can get the El Diablo Elote covered in Hot Cheeto dust. The Attic, a restaurant in Long Beach, serves Mac and Cheetos, a mac and cheese spiked with Hot Cheetos. The Low-Key Poke Joint, with locations in Riverside and Garden Grove, serves hot cheetos encrusted poke wraps.
Sam Dean: You go to like a street fair and people are selling like Flamin' Hot Cheeto bag pillows, like it's just like a phenom.
Dan Pashman: Gustavo says there’s a reason why this snack has been an especially big hit in this region.
Gustavo Arellano: In Southern California, the majority of the school kids now are Latinos. You see something spicy. You've been conditioned to a lifetime of just cheese flavor of cool ranch flavor, whatever the hell cool ranch is. So now all of a sudden you realize, oh, there's something spicy and so subliminally it's like, oh, I'm seeing myself. My culture is represented in this Flamin' Hot Cheetos. You embrace them, you teach the next generation, hey this is our chip, this is our snack. And then once you start getting older, you start hearing this rumor or did you know that a Mexican janitor invented Flaming Hot Cheetos?
Dan Pashman: That former janitor is Richard Montañez.
CLIP (PERSON 1): Richard Montañez.
CLIP (PERSON 2): Richard Montañez.
CLIP (PERSON 3): The godfather of the hispanic branding, Mr. Richard Montañez.
CLIP (GROUP OF PEOPLE): He invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos!
[ROUND OF APPLAUSE]
Dan Pashman: He was born and raised in the agricultural town of Ontario, California. His parents worked the fields picking grapes. In 2014, he spoke at an awards ceremony for The League of United Latin American Citizens.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): And I remember one day, a neighbor said, they’re hiring at Frito-Lay. I said, "Frito-Lay, [GASPS] what if I could get a job there? What if I can change the destiny for the Montañez family? Maybe we don't have to work the fields anymore, if I can get into that! A real job?"
Dan Pashman: It’s late 70s, Richard is 19, and he lands that job at the Frito-Lay, as a janitor in the Rancho Cucamonga plant. It’s just a few miles from where he grew up.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): And I remember I went home, I told my dad and grandfather, "You know what they told me? When you mop that floor, don’t forget you are a Montañez. Let that floor shine!
Dan Pashman: As Richard tells it, after a decade working at Frito-Lay, he sees a video, a message to employees from the new CEO, Roger Enrico. Here’s Sam Dean again.
Sam Dean: Roger Enrico sent out a video telling all the people working at the company to act like owners, take ownership at the company, and, you know, come up with their own ideas, come up with ways to improve everything. You know, I think it was based on the kind of like Toyota Kaisen model of continuous improvement. You know, it was a big 80s business thing, letting frontline workers take over.
Dan Pashman: When Richard sees that video, he feels like the CEO is talking directly to him. After 10 years as a janitor, Richard’s eager to move up the ranks. As he writes in his memoir, he’s always looking for ways to prove himself, to show that he can do more than just mop floors. He starts taking shifts in the production line, learning how the different machines work. He creates a new, ultra-thin chip, that he pitches to the R&D team, but they turn him down.
Dan Pashman: Richard keeps at it. On his day off, he decides to ride along with one of the warehouse drivers, who delivers chips in the area. And the last stop is Richard’s local grocery store. He notices that the chip rack, where Frito-Lay has their Ruffles and Lays and Cheetos, is right next to the section with the Mexican spices, like chili powder, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper. Here’s Richard talking on the podcast The Passionate Few:
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): And I saw these spices, and I looked at all of our products and like, ehh, we don't really have a lot of spices.
Dan Pashman: Richard thinks to himself, Frito-Lay should be using these spices in their chips. A week later, he’s leaving the grocery store and he sees an elote vendor. Elote, of course, Mexican grilled corn. Richard buys an elote. It’s covered in butter, cotija cheese, cilantro, and chili powder.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): So I took a bite, and when I looked at it, it was like this looks like a cheeto.
Dan Pashman: And that’s when he says it hits him.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): What would happen if I put chili on a cheeto?
Dan Pashman: Richard gets to work. He knows that at the plant, there are often leftover tubs of unseasoned cheetos that get thrown out. So he brings home a garbage bag full of naked cheetos, and sets up a food lab in his kitchen. The whole family gets into it. They start with a salsa that Richard’s wife makes at home, and they begin tweaking the ingredients and proportions. They create a makeshift tumbler using a plastic bag meant for roasting a turkey, and they keep fine tuning the recipe. They figure out that spraying the cheetos with oil first helps the seasonings stay on the chip. Richard even comes up with a name, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Dan Pashman: He thinks he has a great idea and he believes the CEO’s words, that he should act like an owner. Here’s Richard giving another speech in 2014, at the Latino Leaders Network:
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): So I did what any typical Latino janitor would do, is I called up the CEO.
Dan Pashman: He pitches his idea for a spicy cheeto to CEO Roger Enrico.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): And this is what he said, "I’ll be in Cucamonga in two weeks, Richard."
Dan Pashman: That means Richard will have his chance to give an official pitch for this new snack. The day comes, and as Richard tells it, the board room is filled with high level executives, product developers, and lots of plant workers. Over 100 people are there, including the CEO. Richard's worked at the plant for years, but he’s never given this kind of presentation. He’s nervous. But he gets up in front of the group and tells the story of going to the grocery store, seeing the Mexican spices, of eating elote, and getting his inspiration. He even pulls out an elote from under the podium and takes a bite. Everyone’s laughing, and they seem excited about this new product. At the end, one of the senior execs asks, "How much market share are we talking about?". Richard doesn’t know what to say, he freezes up. But then, a vision comes to him.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): You know when you go to the store at the supermarket? Well, they’re called gondolas, where you see all the chips?
Dan Pashman: Richard opens his arms wide, like he’s reaching around all the chip racks, the gondolas. And he says...
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): That much market share.
Dan Pashman: Then Roger Enrico, the CEO, gets up, and opens his arms too, just as wide as Richard’s. And Roger says:
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): Ladies and gentlemen, do you realize that we have the opportunity to go after that much market share?
Dan Pashman: Roger Enrico is sold. Frito-Lay starts developing Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Richard says they even base the spice blend on the one he and his wife developed in their home kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Richard gets promoted to machine operator at the plant, but in his spare time he’s advocating for Flamin' Hot Cheetos and pushing for a whole line of Flamin’ Hot products. Finally, 10 years after pitching Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, he gets promoted to corporate manager. A few years later, he becomes a Vice President at PepsiCo, who owns Frito-Lay. Richard begins telling his story at company events, and then more widely as a motivational speaker. And he turns it into a story about inspiration and perseverance, about climbing up the corporate ladder from janitor to executive.
CLIP (RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): Young people, I want to tell you today, you don’t need anybody’s permission to become great. And if you feel like you need somebody’s permission, well I’m here to give it to you today. You have my permission to be great.
Dan Pashman: Richard’s story goes viral. Upworthy posts about it, with the headline “The incredible tale of how a Frito-Lay janitor pitched his billion-dollar idea to the CEO.” He appears in a Buzzfeed listicle titled “12 Super Interesting Facts You’ll Wanna Read If You Fucking Love Cheetos”.
Dan Pashman: Earlier this year, Richard’s memoir is published by Penguin Random House and he consults on a biopic based on his life, directed by Eva Longoria and distributed by Fox Searchlight, a division of Disney.
Dan Pashman: I should mention that we reached out to Richard multiple times but he did not respond to our request for an interview. While his story has been shared far and wide, according to Gustavo Arellano, it really strikes a chord with Southern California’s Latino community.
Gustavo Arellano: And you think, wow, that's really cool. One of us did that, like that's awesome. And so it just becomes embedded, specifically, with Mexican-American culture but Latinos at large also embrace that as one of their own, even if you're not a Mexican or Chicanos. Like, oh, cool, like one of our cousins invented this chip that speaks to us. That's awesome. Of course, we're going to love it even more. Con mas gusto, like with more joy.
Dan Pashman: After the break, a twist in the story of Richard Montañez.
CLIP (SAM DEAN): Early 2020, we get an anonymous tip from someone saying, hey, this is fishy, you know, you should look into it more and try to talk to people who were there at the time.
Dan Pashman: That’s coming up, stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, I talk with Antoni Porowski. Yes, the one and only food expert from Queer Eye but he wasn't the obvious choice for that role. He’s not a chef and he has no formal culinary training. So when the show debuted in 2018, a lot of people asked, “Can this guy actually cook?”
CLIP (ANTONI POROWSKI): It's literally the worst thing you could possibly hear when you're already thinking that about yourself. And then you have people who are saying that. And all you see — like, all I saw was that. I took out all of the good and I just like focused in on all of the bad. And it made me miserable.
Dan Pashman: In the years since, he’s alternated between trying to prove his haters wrong and trying to stop worrying about what others think. He tells me where he’s at now. Plus, he shares his secrets for a good salad and his hot takes on pierogis. It's really a great conversation. Check it out, up now wherever you got this one.
Dan Pashman: OK. Back to the show. So Sam Dean, the reporter for the L.A. Times we heard from earlier, gets an anonymous tip. Someone says to him, you know that story about Richard Montañez? Well, I know how Flamin' Hot Cheetos were really invented. Sam’s in L.A., he knows what a big deal Flamin' Hot Cheetos are. So he decides to look into it.
Sam Dean: You know, the first thing we usually do is just a quick, you know, Lexis Nexis archive search. It's very boring.
Dan Pashman: We’ll run some music under this part, Sam, where it's like intense detective, hot on the trail journalism, I'm going to break the big story like in the movies. We'll add that in.
Sam Dean: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And then this is all going to sound very exciting. Go on. Lexis Nexis, hit it.
Sam Dean: Well, yeah. So you look up the historical stuff. We saw, like, OK, there's all this stuff about Flamin' Hot Cheetos in the early 90s and there's this — very quickly, we found this article that was just like PR person for Frito-Lay in '92 saying, yeah, they came out of, you know, Northern Division in Chicago and we rolled them out this year.
Dan Pashman: Sam starts digging deeper, talking to people who were working in Frito-Lay ’s northern division at the time. And he finds a very different origin story than the one that Richard Montañez has been telling.
Sam Dean: So it starts with, you know, this guy, Fred Lindsay, in the field and his coworkers, who are working all the time on the up and down the street market, which is like liquor stores, corner stores, gas stations, stuff like that.
Dan Pashman: At the time, Fred Lindsay was a Frito-Lay salesman from the South Side of Chicago.
Sam Dean: And they see that other companies' spicy products are just doing really well. They're getting beat at the corner stores by these spicy things. People aren't buying Frito-Lay stuff.
Dan Pashman: So Fred says to the marketing department:
Sam Dean: We just need something spicy to compete. We're leaving money on the table. People love this. We're a giant company. We can do it, too.
Dan Pashman: In 1989, Frito-Lay assigns the project to Lynne Greenfeld, a new employee at their headquarters in Plano, Texas. She visits small stores in the Midwest, works with the product design teams on branding and the flavor mix. Basically, every element of this new snack.
Sam Dean: And she in her recollection and some of her co-workers say that she came up with the name Flamin Hot. She was like, that sounds good, and she got sign off from a bunch of her bosses.
Dan Pashman: Sam spoke to 20 people who worked in product development for Frito-Lay in the 1990s, and the consensus was, that’s where Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came from. A salesman in the midwest pitched the idea and a junior employee at headquarters in Texas developed it.
Dan Pashman: Sam’s reporting also cast doubt on the famed meeting where Richard pitched the idea of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to CEO Roger Enrico. Enrico came to Frito-Lay in 1991. At that point, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos had already been in development for six months.
Dan Pashman: Patty Rueff, Roger Enrico’s secretary, has said publicly that she does remember a phone call between Roger Enrico and Richard Montañez, either in '92 or '93. She also said Roger did take a trip to the Cucamonga plant, and did specifically ask to meet Richard. But by the time they met, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were already being sold in Southern California.
Sam Dean: I don't think that the CEO of a company would get a pitch for something that already exists and say, wow, great idea, we should talk about it.
Dan Pashman: Roger Enrico died in 2016, and Sam couldn’t find any instance of him commenting about the origins of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Of the former Frito-Lay staffers he talked to, who worked in product development, none of them recall a meeting like that happening except one. Al Carey. He was a Frito-Lay executive at the time, and was a mentor to Richard for decades. Richard and Al have made public appearances together, and Al says that a pitch meeting did happen, that Richard pitched a spicy snack aimed at the Latino market. But Al also says that CEO Roger Enrico wasn’t in that meeting.
Dan Pashman: But as Richard rises up the ranks and starts telling his story of inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, what's Frito-Lay saying?
Sam Dean: So Frito-Lay doesn't say much. Executives backing him up, you know, say that, oh, yes, Richard is the guy who invented this. He's a great asset to us. But it seems like it's a lot of his own self promo, as far as I can tell. But, yeah, Frito-Lay doesn't say much. There's kind of let it grow.
Dan Pashman: Were they aware internally at the time that he's going around telling the story that it wasn't true?
Sam Dean: By the time he started telling the story in the, you know, publicly, most the people who worked on it are gone. And then it seems like there's a lot of other people, the company, who genuinely just think it's true. You know, it's like they started working there in 2008. They don't know what happened 20 years ago. Like, sure, why not?
Dan Pashman: But eventually the people who worked on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos did hear Richard’s story. Lynne Greenfeld stumbled on it in 2018. She wasn’t at Frito-Lay anymore, but she contacted the company about it. That triggered an internal investigation. Sam uncovered emails from the investigation that show Frito-Lay lawyers confirming Lynne Greenfeld’s account.
Dan Pashman: But Frito-Lay did not make these findings public. So Richard Montañez was still telling his story when Sam got that tip. Sam knew he had a compelling story on his hands. But he wanted to run an early draft by Gustavo. The two are colleagues at the L.A. Times.
Sam Dean: And so I ask him just, do you think I should do this? I'm a white guy. This is a thing that a lot of Latino people love, especially in Southern California. Is this worth doing?
Dan Pashman: And he says?
Sam Dean: He says, yeah. I mean, he basically says go for it.
Gustavo Arellano: For me, it was like, oh, my God, Sam has stumbled upon something that's just going to blow away people's minds and we better be careful.
Dan Pashman: Why should you be careful?
Gustavo Arellano: Because people were going to be mad.
Dan Pashman: There are a few reasons why people were likely to be mad. Yes, Flamin' Hot Cheetos and their back story were beloved parts of Latino culture in the area. But also, the L.A. Times has a history when it comes to covering Latino issues.
Sam Dean: The L.A. Times was for many decades, basically Right-Wing newspaper, has run a lot of racist stuff about Latino people in the L.A. area. So the L.A. Times does not have a great reputation among Latino readers.
Dan Pashman: Last year, Gustavo wrote an entire column about this, pointing out many of the racist ways that the L.A. Times has covered Latinos in California. In the 1940s, they published columns that celebrated the Zoot Suit Riots, where American servicemen beat Latinos in the streets. In the 1970s, the Times published a series about Central American refugees. The headline of the lead article read “Illegal Aliens are Winning Beachhead for [The] Third World.” In the 1990s, the Times endorsed the reelection of Governor Pete Wilson, who campaigned on a state ballot initiative that would bar undocumented Californians from accessing public services.
Dan Pashman: So this past May, when Sam Dean’s story was published in the L.A. Times, many people were reading it with that context in mind. Within a few hours of the article going live...
Gustavo Arellano: People were saying like, really L.A. Times? When so much shit is going in Southern California, that's misguided principles, misguided opportunity. Fuck this. Fuck Sam Dean. Sam Dean's a white man. How dare he take down a Mexican? The L.A. Times is just another example of hating on Mexicans. Trash! It became a dumpster fire very, very quickly.
Dan Pashman: One letter to the editor called Richard “a hero in the Latino community” and said that Sam is, “not part of the culture in which this story is something of a modern legend.” Others said, with everything going on, why would the L.A. Times put so much effort into a piece that takes down a Mexican-American icon? For Sam and the L.A. Times, this was a business story about one of the biggest public companies in the world.
Sam Dean: On a corporate level, Frito-Lay should not be able to cover itself in glory as this place that let this janitor create this product that changed the world when it didn't. It was a really — it was the normal kind of boring corporate process and you shouldn't get a little rosy glow when you eat a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, when it's not deserved.
Dan Pashman: But there were other criticisms from Sam's story. One letter to the editor said, “You attack a Latino who actually did rise up the ranks, even though it may or may not have been exactly the way he said.” This was a theme in a lot of the backlash. Yeah, maybe the story isn’t totally true, but can’t we just have this one? After all, white people rip off Latino food culture all the time.
Dan Pashman: Some people pointed to the history at Frito-Lay, in particular. In the 1930s, Charles Doolin bought the patent for Fritos from a Mexican gas station vendor in San Antonio, which is where the chip empire began. For decades Doolin was celebrated as the creator of Fritos. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the originator of the chip was named. Texas Monthly tracked him down in Oaxaca. His name was Gustavo Olguin. Another example: Doritos.
Gustavo Arellano: The way Frito-Lay would tell it, that one of their executives, a man named Arch West in the 1960s, he went somewhere to the wrong side of the tracks and goes to a Mexican restaurant and gets this snack, basically tortilla chips with cheese, like cheese dust on them. And then he goes back to Frito-Lay and then invents Doritos like that. As it turns out, it's a Mexican family, the Morales family, who had a commissary contract at Disneyland. They're the ones who invented Doritos. When I told that story of the Morales family, I had never been told it before in the media. I look through everywhere, all the newspaper clippings, never until I was able to tell it.
Dan Pashman: So Doritos are more Mexican or Mexican-American than Flamin' Hot Cheetos?
Gustavo Arellano: Sure, 1000 percent. I mean, by virtue of birth, absolutely. Doritos were invented by a Mexican family.
Dan Pashman: So the reactions to Sam’s story weren’t just about the story. It was about a long history. That’s why it touched a nerve. And Gustavo understands that history as well as anyone. Still, as far as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is concerned?
Gustavo Arellano: What I would what I would say in response is the truth is a truth. I'm sorry. Maybe it's — maybe my reporter glasses blinds me to my allegiance to any allegiance I'm supposed to have to my people, whoever the hell my people are. But truth is truth.
Dan Pashman: To be clear, much of Richard Montañez’s story is true. He was a janitor, who worked his way up to an executive. He did pitch spicy snacks aimed at the Latino market, some of which ended up in stores, including a chip called Sabrositas. One person Sam talked to, who worked on Sabrositas, said Richard’s role in the creation of that snack was almost exactly what Richard claims he did for Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
Dan Pashman: Frito-Lay's parent company, PepsiCo, eventually acknowledged that Richard’s story about inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos wasn’t true. They told Sam, “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.” They called the story an “urban legend”.
Dan Pashman: After the backlash to the article, PepsiCo issued another statement which reads in part, “We attribute the launch and success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez.” But the statement still did not give Richard credit for inventing Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
Dan Pashman: When we reached out to PepsiCo for comment, they sent us the same statement and didn’t respond to follow up questions. And again, Richard Montañez did not respond to our repeated requests for an interview. But the day that the L.A. Times story was published, Richard posted a video on Instagram.
CLIP ( RICHARD MONTAÑEZ): You gotta remember this, I don’t care what room you’re in, there’s always somebody in the room whose going to try and steal your destiny. They may even say you never existed. I want you to do this. Write down your history because if you don’t, somebody else will.
Dan Pashman: He also gave an interview to Variety, in which he says he never documented his work and that Frito-Lay eventually cut him out of the process for developing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. All this news broke just as production was wrapping on Flamin’ Hot, the film about Richard’s life. Frito-Lay was involved in the production, according to emails Sam obtained. But once his article came out...
Sam Dean: Frito-Lay now has said that they've cut ties with the movie, will not be supporting it.
Dan Pashman: But Sam is skeptical. After all, the film is based on a Frito-Lay product.
Sam Dean: The fact that they're prominently showing the product name in the movie means that Frito-Lay is still backing it.
Dan Pashman: Well, it'll be interesting like you often see movie trailers will say based on a true story, inspired by a true story, inspired by real events...
Sam Dean: Right.
Dan Pashman: There's different sort of like phrases that they use, I think, depending on how much poetic license they've taken?
Sam Dean: There was a great article, one of the follows that after my piece published was a Variety story about the movie and the screenwriter, I think his line was, "It's true enough."
Sam Dean: He was like, as far as I'm concerned, it's true enough.
Dan Pashman: That’s Sam Dean, business reporter at the L.A. Times. You also heard Gustavo Arellano, a columnist for the L.A. Times and author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. We’ll have a link to Sam’s article, and Gustavo’s column on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, on our showpage at Sporkful.com.
Dan Pashman: Coming up next week, I talk with the one and only Padma Lakshmi. I first had Padma on the show in 2016 and, you know, she was already a superstar then. Now, she’s become more outspoken about representation and diversity in the food world. So I talk to her about that evolution, and she tells me why, despite all her success, she struggled to find someone to make her show, Taste the Nation. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: And in the meantime, make sure you check out last week’s episode with Antoni Porowski, the food expert on Queer Eye, who tells me about how he dealt with being an early target of criticism on the show.