In addition to being one of the world’s foremost cheesy treats, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos endure as something of a cultural cornerstone. Crunchy, hot, and spicy, the signature snack has been rapped about in viral videos and worn by Katy Perry as a Halloween costume, among other things. What’s even more impressive is the unlikely story behind Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which begins with a man named Richard Montañez.
One of 11 children, Montañez grew up picking grapes and couldn’t speak English by the time he dropped out of high school. Upon taking a job as a janitor at Frito-Lay, he ended up giving literal meaning to the concept of rags to riches. Here’s his story.
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Who is Richard Montañez?
The son of a Mexican immigrant, Richard Montañez grew up in the small farming town of Guasti, California, about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. One among a legion of migrant workers, he picked grapes at the vineyards while attending largely white schools. In grade school, he demonstrated an early entrepreneurial spirit, selling Mom’s homemade burritos to his white classmates for 25 cents a pop.
Despite his popular hustle, Montañez felt like a total outsider for obvious reasons. Speaking not a lick of English, he dropped out of high school and then took a series of odd jobs. Eventually, he landed a gig as a janitor at Frito-Lay.
From the get-go, Montañez retained a heightened sense of pride in his work, distinguishing himself as a result. In his own words, he decided to be “best janitor Frito-Lay ever had” and duly set about making it happen. All the while, he absorbed the company’s broader operations, learning how the machines worked, shadowing salesmen, and exploring the warehouse after hours.
One day, Montañez experienced what might be described as the first half of an epiphany. While tagging along with a salesman through a Latino neighbourhood, he realised that Frito-Lay’s products were “all salt or BBQ flavours—nothing spicy or hot.” Not only did that mean the brand was overlooking popular flavours, but that it was also failing to effectively target the Latin demographic, which largely favoured spicy products.
The second half of Montañez’s epiphany arrived when he was eating some elote, i.e. Mexican corn on the cob slathered in chilli powder, cheese, and other goodness. In his mind, he imagined a crunchy Cheeto covered in chilli powder. The earliest seeds for hot and spicy Cheetos had thus been born.
Wasting little time, Montañez snagged some Cheetos without the cheese coating from a broken factory machine. At home, he covered the Cheetos in his homemade chilli powder, then distributed them among friends and family. Needless to say, early product testing was through the roof.
The janitor’s next move was his boldest to date. Taking inspiration from a Frito-Lay corporate video—in which CEO Roger Enrico claimed he wanted every single employee to “act like an owner”—Montañez hopped on the phone and called Enrico himself. Miraculously, he was put through to the CEO, who said he’d be arriving at the plant in two weeks time. Could Montañez put together a presentation by then?
After checking out virtually every business book in the library, Montañez and his wife manually designed and produced 100 sample bags of what would ultimately become Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. That was followed by a naive but earnest presentation, during which the company janitor fielded questions from various executives. When asked how much market share he expected this new snack to grab, he spread his arms wide and proclaimed, “This much market share!”
Embraced on all fronts by the CEO, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos hit the shelves in 1991, only to become Frito-Lay’s best-selling snack. Today, Montañez is Vice President of Multicultural sales for PepsiCo America (Frito-Lay’s parent company), and a well-known speaker on cultural diversity in the workplace. Last year, it was reported that a movie based on his memoir was in the works. There haven’t been too many updates on that front, but his story remains the stuff of legend, nonetheless.
How are Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Made?
Montañez’s meteoric rise might bring a tear of joy to your eye, but the story of how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are made is arguably less inspiring. This is, after all, a mass-produced snack, so any traces of its creator’s homemade chilli powder have likely been supplanted. Of course, one shouldn’t take that to mean Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are anything short of delicious, hence their perennial popularity.
At the heart of every hot and spicy Cheeto are enriched cornmeal, cheddar cheese, Flamin’ Hot Seasoning, and natural flavour. The enriched cornmeal delivers an ideal combination of puffy and crunchy texture, while the cheese reminds you that this is indeed a Cheeto. Despite its hot and spicy name, Flamin’ Hot Seasoning is really just maltodextrin, i.e. tasteless white powder used to evenly distribute flavours and colours.
As for the “natural flavour,” it’s an industry term used to conceal secret ingredients, which in this case is likely concentrated chilli powder or something similar.
Otherwise, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are packed full of ubiquitous snack ingredients like monosodium glutamate, sodium diacetate, vegetable oil, garlic powder, whey protein concentrate, salt, and sugar. For the finishing touch, Red 40 Lake and Yellow 6 Lake dyes mix with the powdered ingredients and the vegetable oil to give each hot Cheeto its distinctive colour and coating. Mmm, mmm, good!