Richard Montañez dropped out of school because he struggled with English and was working as a Frito-Lay janitor when he came up with what became Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the flagship of a PepsiCo line of spicy snack food.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — the spicy red version of the classic cheese-flavored snack — are something of a cultural phenomenon. A group of children rapping about them racked up more than 16 million views on YouTube. Pop star Katy Perry even dressed as a Flamin’ Hot for Halloween.
Although several schools banned them, saying they were unhealthy, the snacks enjoy the kind of high profile that research chefs and food scientists who are employed by big companies like Frito-Lay spend their careers chasing. But Flamin’ Hot Cheetos weren’t made by any experts.
They were invented by a janitor, the son of a Mexican immigrant who dropped out of school because he struggled with English.
His name is Richard Montañez, and Fox Searchlight Pictures is making a movie about his life.
Lewis Colick, who wrote “Charlie St. Cloud” and “October Sky,” will pen the first draft of the screenplay, based on the initial pitch from Montañez and producer DeVon Franklin, Variety reported.
The biopic, titled “Flamin’ Hot,” will follow Montañez’s real-life rags-to-riches tale.
He grew up on a farm migrant labor camp in Guasti, Calif., a tiny town centered on winemaking. As a child, Montañez — one of 11 siblings — picked grapes at the vineyards and ate a communal table with several other families.
But he had an entrepreneurial streak even then.
In his memoir, “A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie,” he described arriving at his white elementary school during segregation. His bus was green, while the white children rode a yellow bus. Speaking only Spanish, he couldn’t understand anyone.
He felt like an outsider, especially at lunchtime when he pulled out a burrito. In the 1960s, Mexican food wasn’t the popular staple in communities it is now. The other kids, with their bologna sandwiches and cupcakes, stared until he grew embarrassed and put the burrito in his bag.
He begged his mom to make him the same food as everyone else, but she refused. Instead, the next day, she made him two burritos for lunch and told him to make a friend.
By the end of the week, he was selling burritos to his classmates for 25 cents each.
“I learned at that moment that there was something special about being different, that there was a reason that we all just couldn’t fit into the same box,” he wrote.
His background would prove useful again later in life, but first it presented an obstacle. Montañez’s struggle to learn English was so severe that he dropped out of school at an extremely young age. He worked various low-paying jobs, from slaughtering chickens to gardening around town, picking up English along the way.
When he was about 12 years old in 1976, Montañez landed a job as a janitor at a California Frito-Lay plant.
One day, as he told Lowrider magazine, he saw a companywide video of then-CEO Roger Enrico saying, “We want every worker in this company to act like an owner. Make a difference. You belong to this company, so make it better.”
Montañez took these words to heart.
“Here’s my invitation. Here’s the CEO telling me, the janitor, that I can act like an owner,” Montañez later recalled at the 2014 League of United Latin American Citizens’ National Convention. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. Didn’t need to. But I knew I was going to act like an owner.”
As he tells it, one day an assembly line at the plant where he worked broke down. A batch of Cheetos didn’t receive the orange, cheesy dust that make them so popular. So he took a few home to experiment.
He had formed an idea while watching a street vendor in his neighborhood make elote, or grilled Mexican street corn — corn on the cob covered in cheese, butter, lime and chili.
“What if I took the same concept and applied it to a Cheeto?” he thought, according to his memoir.
So he did. His friends and family loved the result. Thinking back to the video and figuring he had nothing to lose, he decided to call Enrico to pitch the idea.
Enrico took his call and told Montañez to present his product in two weeks. So the janitor went out and bought his first-ever tie for $3, then stopped by a library to get a book on marketing and copied a strategy out of it to recite during the presentation.
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“I’m a little bit of an artist, so I even designed the bags and put the Cheetos in it,” he told Fox News Latino.
Against all odds, it worked. Enrico loved the idea, and a new line of spicy snack food was born — with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos released in the early 1990s as its flagship. Montañez has since served in various positions throughout the company, including as an executive vice president.
“Many times, greatness will come in ridiculous forms, a ridiculous idea might be a billion dollar idea,” he told Fox News Latino.
He now travels around the country, giving speeches on the importance of diversity in business. His message is always simple, as he told the audience at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Power of Diversity event, according to The Kansas City Star.
“If you have confidence, you can walk into any room,” he said. “Your job is to prepare yourself to walk through the doors.”
It certainly worked for him. And while his wardrobe has grown considerably since he walked into that room with Enrico, he still holds onto that $3 tie.