How Everyone’s Favorite Hot Snack Was Born
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were a part of many of our childhoods. For me, Hot Cheetos remind me of my days growing up in Anaheim when I would give the ice cream man my four quarters for a small bag of the good stuff. Many people may not know that the humble origins of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos took place right here in Southern California. So sit back and enjoy the incredible story of Richard Montanez, the father of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Humble Southern California Beginnings
Richard Montanez was born in Mexico, but later moved and spent his childhood in the town of Guasti, California. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Guasti is a small town sandwiched between Ontario and Rancho Cucamunga, home of the popular Victoria Gardens shopping center and the enormous Ontario Mills Mall.
Montanez had a hard time assimilating to American life in the 1960’s. As we all know, it was at that time that the country was going through major Civil Rights reform. Being from Mexico, Montanez didn’t speak much English and found attending school to be a major challenge. Richard told Lowrider Magazine that at one point, he would cry while getting ready for school because he was unable to understand the teachers.
Richard describes how he was embarrassed to be eating a burrito for lunch while the other kids were eating more traditional meals like bologna sandwiches. Eventually, he learned to embrace his heritage and ended up selling his mom’s burritos for a quarter a piece!
As time passed, he dropped out of school due to his lack of ability to understand his teachers and peers.
The Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay Factory
Not long after, a friend of his told Montanez, who was working some odd jobs to make ends meet, about an opening at the Frito-Lay factory for a janitor in the neighboring town of Rancho Cucamonga.
At the time he applied and got the job, Richard, who was only 12 years old at the time, was determined to be the best damn janitor the company has ever had. He cites some wisdom passed down to him from his grandfather-
“Make sure that floor shines and make sure they know a Montanez mopped it.”
Montanez loved his job, and one day an employee morale video struck a chord with him. In the videotape, the President of the company, Roger Enrico, told employees, “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, that’s what he did.
He wanted to learn more about the product and the brand, so he started hanging around the factory workers and salespeople. At the time, Frito-Lay didn’t offer anything other than the plain products, and at most, they would add a BBQ flavoring.
One afternoon, Montanez was buying an elote (you know, the corn with mayo and chili that the Mexican guy sells from his cart around a latino neighborhood?), and he had an epiphany.
He thought to himself, “I wonder what it’d be like if I gave the same treatment that the elote man gives to the corn, but to a Cheeto.”
Richard knew that the company didn’t really offer any flavors that were marketed toward the Latino segment, and he thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to hit an untapped market. Plus, SoCal has a huge Latino community!
Hot Cheetos are Born
While at work one day, he heard about one of the assembly machines breaking down, which resulted in some uncoated Cheetos that were left in the reject pile. Montanez was able to talk the factory workers into letting him take home some of the non-coated Cheetos so he could test out his little experiment.
As you know, Richard was right! After trying some of the Cheetos with a chili seasoning, he realized he had struck gold. He wanted to make the product his very own brainchild, so he concocted some recipes for a chili powder that would eventually become the iconic seasoning we all love.
Using his friends and family as guinea pigs, his hopes was confirmed. Hot Cheetos were a huge hit. Richard had discovered something previously untried and knew he had to do something about it.
It was after confirmation from his family that a Cheeto is indeed enhanced with chili powder, he remembered the videotape that made such an impact on him since he started working for the company.
“We want every employee to act like an owner…”, the words echoed in his head.
Feeling inspired, Richard knew what he wanted to do. He planned to call up the President, Roger Enrico, and tell him his idea. His naivety led him to believe he could do just that. It never crossed his mind that a low level employee like himself had no business calling up a top executive. His boldness paid off. Montanez was on a good luck streak.
Richard gives credit to Enrico’s assistant for not only taking his call, but for actually putting him through to speak with the President of the company.
Earning the frito-lay blessing
It says a lot about the character of Roger Enrico for taking a call coming from a janitor at one of his plants. After Richard explained that he has an idea for a product and target demographic, Enrico assured him that he would hear out his idea when he pays a visit to the Rancho Cucamonga facility.
As luck would have it, Enrico was scheduled to pay a visit to the plant shortly after. Montanez had a few weeks to work on his pitch and polish his appearance a bit before the visit.
Montanez recalls that his coworkers were not as enthusiastic about the meeting between himself and the President of the company. He remembers that they were upset about having to work harder to prepare the facility for the visit. Although Richard felt a bit unsupported, his determination remained strong.
To say that Richard was an ambitious person would be a huge understatement. Knowing that he had to really impress the President, he designed and created his own packaging for the Hot Cheetos all on his own.
Realizing that he did not know anything about how the business works, he went straight to his public library to find any book that would set him on the right course of action.
When the day came, not only did Mr. Enrico show up, he was accompanied by a number of top executives. Richard’s creativity paid off when Enrico saw the makeshift packaging and thought the company had already designed the bag for his Hot Cheetos!
The gravity of the situation weighed on Richard when he was asked about complicated marketing and business aspects and realized he had no idea what they were talking about, or what he was even doing, for that matter. He felt in over his head. What would keep him going?
Instead of making Montanez feel that he was way out of his league, the executives pushed Richard to keep going. It was during this meeting that Richard’s fate was sealed, and the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were officially born.
Where IS Richard Montanez Now?
Thanks to Richard’s ambition and ingenuity, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are now Frito-Lays’ most popular, and top-selling product.
Since that fateful meeting, Richard has held numerous jobs at the company and even secured the position of Executive Vice President. He learned the hard work of corporate America by being thrown right into the pit of things.
His story is an inspirational tale of courage, ingenuity and just a little bit encouragement. He hopes that younger generations of minorities will view his story as be inspired to do big things in their own lives. He even worked with PepsiCo to start a scholarship program for minorities all over the country.
Richard’s story is so inspirational, there is currently a movie in the works about how he started from humble beginnings and going on to create arguably the most iconic snack food of all time.
My favorite quote from Richard Montanez regarding his success is as follows:
“I may not have a degree, but I read a book a week. People tell me that with the knowledge I have, I should have a PhD. I tell them, ‘I’ve had a PhD since I was a kid: I was poor, hungry, and determined!’”
You can get Richard Montanez’s book, A Boy, A Burrito, and A Cookie here.
Photo Cred: CNBC