For a while there, it seemed like Eva Longoria couldn’t have chosen a better filmmaking debut than her forthcoming Flamin’ Hot Cheetos movie. It’s the kind of project that’s built to go viral, celebrating a junk food that’s garnered countless hacks and hosannas on TikTok, while sending young rappers to the hospital. Unless you’re Marvel, you simply can’t buy that kind of name recognition. Even better, once you actually dig beneath the thin, cheesy coating of an “origin story” for spicy corn puffs, you’ll find the inspiring tale of one Richard Montañez, the Frito-Lay janitor who cooked up Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in his home kitchen, revolutionizing the snack market and propelling Montañez to the C-suite and into the annals of corporate legend. It’s a terrific story, one that the Corpus Christi–bred Longoria has called “of great importance to [Mexican American] culture,” and seemingly tailor-made for a heartwarming, ulcer-inflaming biopic.
Unfortunately, according to a detailed Los Angeles Times report that dropped over the weekend, Montañez’s story may be as rife with artificial flavoring as the chip that made him famous.
“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, citing interviews with “multiple personnel” who were responsible for the snack’s creation in the late eighties. The real story, the company says, is far more mundane: executives at Frito-Lay’s corporate headquarters in Plano were tasked with designing a competitor to the regionally produced spicy chips that were popping up in big-city convenience stores across the Midwest. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the company says, weren’t created because the illiterate son of poor migrant laborers dreamed of sharing his Latin culture with the world. The company’s sales group wanted something to appeal to these so-called urban markets, so a bunch of professionals started experimenting with adding hot spices to the mix.
Frito-Lay credits one of those Plano employees, Lynne Greenfeld, with ultimately developing the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand, creating the name, experimenting with packaging and flavor combinations, and generally nurturing the zesty red devils into existence. In 2018, after learning that Montañez had been taking credit for inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos—puffing up the story into an entire personal brand that saw him commanding up to $50,000 in motivational speaker fees—Greenfeld notified Frito-Lay. The company conducted an internal investigation and shared its findings with the Times. Greenfeld minces no words in her criticism of Montañez, telling the paper, “It is disappointing that 20 years later, someone who played no role in this project would begin to claim our experience as his own and then personally profit from it.”
Undaunted, Montañez is sticking by his claims. Shortly after the Times article went up, a smiling Montañez posted an Instagram video in which he implicitly accuses the company of trying to erase his contributions. “I don’t care what room you’re in, there’s always somebody in the room that’s going to try to steal your destiny,” he says. “They may even say you never existed.” He’s maintained that defiance in follow-up statements to Variety. Montañez and his spokesperson say his work was never properly documented, and that he was “pushed out” of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos history because of his low position in the company.
Complicating matters here is the fact that Montañez really did make some significant contributions to Frito-Lay, and no one disputes his rags-to-riches rise from factory worker to game-changing executive. Company records show that Montañez was instrumental in shepherding its Sabrositas line, developing the spinoff Flamin’ Hot Popcorn and the (since discontinued) Lime & Chile Fritos, the latter based on his own kitchen experiments. Frito-Lay executives have also publicly commended Montañez for helping to shape its approach to Hispanic consumers as a director of marketing, and they continue to celebrate him as an important part of the company’s history. In short, Richard Montañez’s story is still inspirational and plenty compelling. It’s just not, the company says, the story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Still, does it matter? Maybe not, according to the filmmakers. The Times reports that Frito-Lay informed the producers behind Longoria’s biopic back in 2019 about Montañez’s possible exaggerations. But film production continued anyway: on May 4, we learned that Longoria had chosen Jesse Garcia and Annie Gonzalez to play Montañez and his wife, respectively, and Longoria insisted it was her “biggest priority to make sure we are telling Richard Montañez’s story authentically.”
Longoria has yet to comment on the Times’ report. It’s also not entirely clear whether she was ever told about the possibility that Montañez’s tale—also the subject of a memoir due out June 15—might be, as Frito-Lay describes it, just an “urban legend.”
But to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos becomes fact, print the legend. Hollywood, after all, is filled with “true” stories that fudge the details to get at something that feels more genuine. The kid in The Blind Side didn’t need Sandra Bullock to teach him how to play football. The crowd never chanted for Rudy. Braveheart didn’t wear face paint or kilts (and that wasn’t even his nickname). The real story of who first thought to combine spices, “urban” marketing, and maltodextrin may, technically, be a more purely Texas tale, but it’s also a boring one. Lynne Greenfeld did plenty of inspiring work as a fresh-from-college junior executive. But watching her tinker with levels of artificial coloring from inside a Plano boardroom wouldn’t be much of a movie.
According to the Times, Al Carey may be the only Frito-Lay executive who supports Montañez’s story, albeit with a foggy recollection of the details. As he puts it to the Times, Montañez is a lot like other charismatic, Steve Jobs–like leaders who have emerged throughout corporate history. “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,” Carey says.
Sure, Montañez may have added some “flavor” to his life story. But we’re talking about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos here. Maybe it’s best not to dwell on what they’re actually made of.