Who Invented Hot Cheetos? It’s Complicated

As much of a food fan as I am, I am even crazier about movies. Just ask Sporked’s Jordan Myrick; we suffered through Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny together. Point being, I’ll see pretty much anything. But when I first saw a trailer for 2023’s Flamin’ Hot, I was not particularly compelled to watch a movie about chips. But the more I learned about its backstory and subject matter, the more I found it fascinating. Let’s look at how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have come to be.

Who invented Hot Cheetos?

There are two sides to this story. The first, and the one that the movie follows, is that of Richard Montañez, a Mexican-American man who grew up poor and began working at Frito-Lays as a janitor in 1976. After a rousing company message from the CEO, Montañez took the initiative to flavor some unseasoned Cheetos at home. He called the CEO on the phone, and presented his new creation to the head honchos. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a fun story, and one that Montañez insists is true to this day. But representatives at Frito-Lays have provided their own version. They credit Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to internal marketing and product development, including employees Lynne Greenfield and Fred Lindsay. They provide an alternate timeline of events, saying that spice maker McCormick developed the Hot Cheetos seasoning in 1989, well before Montañez made his pitch. 

How were Hot Cheetos invented?

According to Montañez, he was inspired while eating elote—Mexican street corn—with his family. His son loved the spiciness and Montañez decided to harness those spices into a new kind of Cheetos in an effort to attract more of a Latino audience to the snack. 

According to Frito-Lay, it was pure entrepreneurial capitalism. In the huge company’s ever-growing pursuit to reinvent itself and create new products, they basically said, “Hey, what about spicy?” This version certainly removes the human element of their creation, which doesn’t make a great Hollywood story.

When did Hot Cheetos come out?

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were released nationally in 1992 and the timing could not have been more perfect. The ‘90s were notable as the X-Games era, during which brands attempted to cash in on things that were linked to extreme sports. Who remembers Surge soda or Gushers, the candy that explodes in your mouth? All these things would make Tony Hawk proud.

Is the Hot Cheetos story true?

Here’s what we know to be true: Montañez did work at Frito-Lays, and did rise from janitor up to the level of marketing executive. He also is credited with expanding the Flamin’ Hot line to other products like popcorn and corn chips. But his timeline of events does not match the one that Frito-Lays is presenting. Montañez claims that he was squeezed out of the development process because, at the time, he was still just working on the factory floor.

I am inclined to take Montañez’s side, mostly because I do not trust any massive company to tell the truth about anything, and it’s far more likely for them to take credit for something than to give it to a single person. Regardless, Montañez’s side of the story is a great rags to riches tale, and who wouldn’t want to see that in a movie?

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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