How a janitor at Frito-Lay invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos

Richard Montañez went from cleaning toilets to being one of the most respected execs in the food industry.

November 29, 2017
Note: This post is the final installment of Niches Make Riches, a 4-part series in which we explore the lives of people who made money in strange, unconventional ways. This week, we tell the story of Richard Montañez, a janitor who invented one of the best-selling snack products in history: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Subscribe to The Hustle to get next week’s straight to your inbox.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are not merely a snack: they are a way of life — a tour-de-force that guides us through the dark and dismal crevices of humanity.

In the rolodex of history’s great innovations, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are a lumpy, spice-encrusted beacon of accessibility. They are a creation for the people, enjoyed by everyone from Katy Perry to middle-schoolers on meal vouchers. There’s even a rap song about them.

And their creator, Richard Montañez, has one of the best inventor stories we’ve ever heard.

It begins at a California vineyard

Guasti, California: the small, unincorporated community where Richard Montañez grew up.

One of 11 children, Montañez grew up picking grapes in Guasti, California, a tiny farming town 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

As a native Spanish speaker with no language resources, he struggled to understand his teachers. “I remember my mom getting me ready for school and I was crying,” he told Lowrider magazine. “I couldn’t speak English.”

He dropped out of high school and worked a variety of odd jobs at a poultry factory, a car wash, and a gardening service.

Then, in 1976, a friend told him about a janitor opening at Frito-Lay.

“There’s no such thing as ‘just a janitor’”

A Frito-Lay factory

When Montañez landed the job, his grandfather imparted a piece of wisdom: “Make sure that floor shines,” he told his grandson. “And let them know that a Montañez mopped it.”

The new gig was a source of pride — and Montañez decided he was going to be the “best janitor Frito-Lay ever had.”

He quickly made an impact. “Every time someone walked into a room, it would smell fresh,” he later recalled. “I realized there’s no such thing as ‘just a janitor’ when you believe you’re going to be the best.”

Aside from his janitorial duties, Montañez started tagging along with sales guys, spending time in the warehouse, and watching the machines operate to learn about the company and its products.

And he started to notice something.

“I saw no products catering to Latinos”

Elote, the Mexican corn treat that inspired Flamin’ Hot Cheetos

While shadowing a salesman one day in a Latino neighborhood, Montañez began to realize that Frito-Lay’s products were “all salt or BBQ flavors — nothing spicy or hot.”

“I looked at the salesman and thought, ‘Aren’t you connecting the dots?!” he said.

Later on, he stopped at a local vendor to get some elote — a Mexican street corn covered in chili powder and other ingredients. He looked down and had a realization: What if I put chilli on a Cheeto?

The birth of the Hot Cheeto

Thanks to a broken machine at the factory, Montañez was able to procure some Cheetos without the cheese coating. He took them home, dusted them with his own homemade chili powder, and handed them out to his family and coworkers. The spicy snack was met with universal enthusiasm.

It was then that Montañez remembered a Frito-Lay corporate video tape he’d seen.

In the video, disseminated to the company’s 300k employees worldwide, Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico had made a proclamation: “We want every worker in this company to act like an owner. Make a difference. You belong to this company, so make it better.”

So, Montañez called him up

“I was naive,” Montañez later said. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to call the CEO… I didn’t know the rules.”
He rang up the general corporate line and was connected with Enrico’s executive assistant. In an interview with PBS, he recalled how the conversation went:

“What division do you run?”
“I work in California.”
“Oh, you’re the general manager for California?”
“No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.”
“You’re the plant director?”
“Well, what is your title?”
“I’m the janitor.”

The secretary put him through, and miraculously, Enrico heard out his idea for spicy Cheetos. Then, the CEO told Montañez he’d be at the plant in 2 weeks and asked him to prepare a presentation.

Feelin’ hot, hot, hot

With no knowledge about how to formulate a business proposal, Montañez and his wife checked out books at the library on marketing strategies, designed graphics, and manually produced 100 bags of the snack.

The day the CEO came to hear his idea, an executive in the crowd asked Montañez how much market share he thought Hot Cheetos could get.

“It hit me that I had no idea what he was talking about, or what I was doing,” Montañez recalled. “I was shaking, and I damn near wanted to pass out…[but] I opened my arms and I said, ‘This much market share!’ I didn’t even know how ridiculous that looked.”

The CEO was blown away by Montañez’s ingenuity — and in 1991, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos hit shelves across America.

From janitor to VP

Montañez at a business conference

Today, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are Frito-Lay’s hottest-selling product — and Montañez is no longer sweeping floors.

The one-time-janitor is now the Vice President of Multicultural sales for PepsiCo America (the holding company of Frito-Lay). In his 34-year career, he’s been recognized by Newsweek and Fortune 500 as one of the most influential Hispanic leaders in America.

He still lives in Rancho Cucamonga, where he gives back to his community through a non-profit he launched, and teaches MBA classes at a nearby college.

Recently, a student asked him how he was teaching without a Ph.D.

“I do have a Ph.D.,” he responded. “I’ve been poor, hungry and determined.”

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