How Richard Montañez says he went from the factory floor to an exec at PepsiCo

Richard Montanez claimed that he invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. This was refuted in a 2021 LA Times report in which Frito-Lay stated, “We value Richard’s many contributions to the company, especially his insight into Hispanic customers, but we don’t credit the creation Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and any Flamin’ Hot products to him.” However, Montanez also maintained his version of the story to Variety, claiming that he might not have known about other divisions working on the company.

Richard Montanez was a Mexican immigrant and grew up in a Southern California migrant labor camp before he had the idea that changed his entire life. Before moving into an 800-square-foot three-bedroom home, he lived with his parents and ten siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. These experiences were a major influence on his life.

The Washington Post hears from the janitor-turned inventor-turned executive, “I have a PhD on being poor and hungry and determined.” “I think that those three experiences can give you a lot of wisdom. Innovation is so easy to come out of being poor.

Montanez is now in his 50s and has been an innovator since grade school.

He was embarrassed when his mom sent him to school on the first day of third grade with a burrito lunch. It was the 1960s, and “very few people had ever seen a burrito back then,” he wrote in his memoir “a Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie.” “There was I with this burrito with everyone staring at my face. So I put it in my bag and hidden it.

He asked his mom for a “bologna sandwich” and a “cupcake like the other children,” but she packed him two burritos instead. One for him to eat and one for him and his friend to share. The seven-year-old entrepreneur had already started selling burritos at $0.25 per each by the end of the week.

Montanez writes, “I realized at that moment that being different was special and that there was a reason we all couldn’t fit in the same box.”

Montanez quit school after struggling to grasp basic reading and writing skills. He then worked low-paying jobs such as gardening and slaughtering chickens. Then, a friend saw him at a carwash and informed him that Frito-Lay was looking for employees.

He visited the Frito-Lay Southern California plant and asked for an application. His future wife completed it on his behalf since he could “hardly read or write.” Later that day, he returned the application and was hired by the company as a janitor.

When a machine in an assembly line broke, and one batch of Cheetos wasn’t being dusted with orange cheese powder, Montanez had the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Montanez brought the plain Cheetos home to experiment with chili powder. This idea was inspired by a street vendor who sold Mexican grilled corn with chili and lime.

He loved the flavor and decided to pitch it to the CEO. Montanez writes that Roger Enrico, then the CEO, had sent out a video telling employees to control the company. He did just that. “I called him up, even though you weren’t supposed call the CEO.”

He called the assistant to the CEO, who helped him get through to the CEO. Enrico gave Montanez two weeks for the preparation of a presentation to be delivered to the company executives.

Montanez went straight to the library to look at books about marketing. Then, he designed a bag that would be unique for his product packaging and entered the meeting in a $3 tie.

He recalls that they were “astonished at the product design,” and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was born. The spicy version of this classic snack is a favorite of Frito-Lay’s today and has become a cultural phenomenon.

After the presentation, Montanez’s career took flight. After the presentation, Montanez rose the corporate ladder at PepsiCo to the executive level. Now he gives motivational talks to companies and presents on the importance of diversity in business. Fox Searchlight Pictures is even making a movie about his story of rags to riches.

The former janitor realized that his life would have been very different if he hadn’t called Enrico. He now uses that knowledge to encourage and motivate others. Montanez wrote, “Don’t assume your position is secure, no matter what it may be.” Instead, “CEO, janitor, act as if you own the company.”

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Samatha Vale
Samatha a senior writer for HC's entertainment team. She is an entreprenuer, mother and an excellent writer. She's also an avid reader, music enthusiast and all around inquisitive person - which is just a nice way of saying she's nosy.

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