Texas-born Eva Longoria’s feature-length directorial debut, Flamin’ Hot, is about Richard Montañez and his journey from factory janitor to the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the late 1970s and 1980s. The movie made its world premiere at South By Southwest (SXSW) on March 11 and will be available on Hulu starting on June 9. The biopic is a funny and charming tale that centers on a Mexican American man, his family, and his culture. It’ll likely be a hit, but not without some controversy.
In 2021, just a few months before filming was set to commence, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative piece where snack corporation Frito-Lay disputed Montañez’s claims that he was responsible for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The company wrote in a statement to the newspaper that “none of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” but made clear that there was no love lost with Montañez. He had worked for the company for four decades, some of which he spent as the vice president of multicultural sales and community promotions for the overall parent company PepsiCo. “That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend,” the statement continued.
Before the film’s Austin premiere last weekend, Longoria participated in a Q&A session with Hollywood Reporter’s Mia Galuppo at the Austin Convention Center. About halfway through, Galuppo brought up the report, asking how Longoria navigated the claims. “It’s interesting because it didn’t affect our script at all,” she said. “Our story’s always been about Richard Montañez. We’ve never set out to tell the history of the Cheeto. I don’t know if you guys would show up for that movie. This is the history of Richard Montañez, which happened to have a really big hand in the launch of this product.”
Longoria talked about how the script never called Montañez a “food chemist.” Instead, she said that “his genius was saying, ‘Nobody’s paying attention to the Hispanic market. We put chile on chips.’ He did come up with a recipe. He did come up with a slurry [Editor’s note: a liquid-based mixture of ingredients] in his kitchen. And he and his wife have so many wonderful memories of that.”
Through the film, Longoria explained that Frito-Lay doesn’t use Montañez’s exact recipe; instead, the company slightly alters it after food scientists got involved, adding in maltodextrin (a substance that improves shelf life) with whatever other chemicals were used to make a product viable for mass production. The story, she said, is about the origin story of a visionary and “why he’s known as the godfather of Hispanic marketing,” who tapped into a community that wasn’t being paid attention to, a community he knew well because he was a part of it.
However, the movie is definitely about the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Maybe not the main plot, which concerns Montañez and his family and how they are trying to make it in a racist country — something the film does not shy away from depicting by way of montages of the Chicano movement and when a young Montañez is arrested for being Brown with a handful of cash.
But the film is certainly about how Montañez himself dreamed up the spicy snack so popular it’s been banned in schools. According to the Los Angeles Times, Frito-Lay said Montañez did play an integral part in a line of food marketed specifically to the Latinx community — Sabrositas, which included Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, and two Fritos flavors, Flamin’ Hot and Lime and Chile Corn Chips. Those products hit the market in 1994, four years after Lynne Greenfeld, the person who is credited by Frito-Lay for developing the Flamin’ Hot name and brand, led the launch of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The Los Angeles Times report indicates that the story Montañez tells about developing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was actually about his work on Sabrositas. The newspaper also referenced an old U.S. News and World Report article published in December 1993 that credited the then 37-year-old machine operator for bursting “forth with a kernel of an idea: Flamin’ Hot Popcorn, which will soon make its debut.”
With speaking engagements, memoirs, and now a feature film, Montañez has made a lucrative living out of the claim he invented what many would call the greatest chip of all time. The veracity of said claims is nebulous at best. However, almost everyone (besides Greenfeld, for example) stands to gain more by acting like Montañez is Flamin’ Hot Cheetos’s mastermind. Longoria and the cast and crew responsible for Flamin’ Hot get their feel-good movie of the summer. Frito-Lay gets to associate with a rags-to-riches story that will undoubtedly raise its stock prices come June and bolster brand loyalty. Audiences get to see themselves on screen in a way they’ve rarely seen before, in terms of an accurate depiction of the culture, and Montañez, whether he developed the actual Hot Cheeto or not, is an example of success in a system designed for him to fail.
After this article was published on March 17, PepsiCo sent Eater Austin the following statement affirming its support of Montañez and his 40 years with the company (it’s the same statement the company sent around in 2021):
A great deal has been recently discussed about the origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The information we shared with the media has been misconstrued by some, which resulted in confusion around where we stand, a range of emotions among our employees and consumers and a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montanez and the Latino community.
The sincere truth is, at PepsiCo, we believe in the strength and power of teams, and we attribute the launch and success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montanez.
Far from being an urban legend, Richard had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today. His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. To be clear, we have no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders.
We also know there was a separate division team developing a spicy product offering for Cheetos and other snack brands that were tested in market and found their way into permanent products on store shelves, including Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Different work streams tackling the same product without interacting occasionally occurred in the past when divisions operated independently and were not the best at communicating. However, just because we can’t draw a clear link between them, doesn’t mean we don’t embrace all of their contributions and ingenuity, including Richard’s.
Richard is an important part of PepsiCo’s history and the success of the company. He is an inspiration and his story cannot be belittled. We regret the confusion that has come from the recent speculation, but most importantly we want Richard to know he is valued and cared for among PepsiCo’s employees and we only wish him happiness and success.”
Update, March 21, 9:58 a.m.: This article, originally published on March 17, has been updated to include a statement from PepsiCo.