Hot Cheetos Are The Most Popular Snack Food Ever, But They Almost Didn’t Exist…
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were a part of many of our childhoods. We’d walk to the local liquor store and grab a bag for 99 cents, or just wait for the ice-cream man. But did you know the origins of Hot Cheetos took place here in Southern California? They weren’t a result of experimenting with new flavors — they were invented by a janitor.
Southern California Beginnings
Richard Montanez was born in Mexico, but later moved and spent his childhood in the town of Guasti, California. Guasti is a small town tucked away between Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga. Nearby landmarks include the Victoria Gardens shopping center and the gigantic Ontario Mills Mall.
Montanez had a tough time assimilating to life in America as a child. The 1960s was the beginning of major Civil Rights reform and tensions were high. As a Mexican native, Montanez didn’t speak much English and found attending school to be a major challenge.
Richard told Lowrider Magazine there were days he would cry while getting ready for school because he knew he was unable to understand the teachers.
He described how he was embarrassed when his mother would pack him a burrito for lunch while the other kids were eating more traditional meals such as bologna sandwiches.
Even at a young age Richard had a gift for seizing opportunity when he’d see it. Once he was able to embrace his heritage, he ended up selling those burritos for a quarter a piece!
Like many immigrant children of the time, he eventually dropped out of school. Although he would have ideally stuck it out, he was simply unable to communicate with his teachers and peers.
The Frito-Lay Factory
Not long after he dropped out of school, Montanez found himself working various odd jobs around town. Eventually, a friend of his told him about a janitorial job opening at a Frito-Lay factory in the neighboring town of Rancho Cucamonga.
Richard followed his friend’s tip and luckily scored the janitor position. Believe it or not, he was only 12-years-old at this time!
Hard work had always been instilled on by his family. Coming from a family of immigrants, he knew he had to work harder than most in order to make a living. He wanted to be the best damn janitor the company ever had.
His grandfather gave him the best words of advice for the job…
“Make sure that floor shines, and make sure they know a Montanez mopped it!”
Montanez was loving his job at the factory. One day while watching an employee training video, a certain statement stuck with him. In the videotape, the President of Frito-Lay, 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.”
…and that’s exactly what Richard set out to do.
He wanted to learn more about the company’s products and brand. To do this, he started hanging around the factory workers and salespeople. At the time, Frito-Lay didn’t offer anything other than the plain products. Their most ambitious products were simply BBQ flavored.
Elote Saves the Day Once Again
One afternoon, Montanez was buying elote — y’know, the corn with mayo and chili you can buy from the man with the cart — and he had an epiphany.
He thought to himself, “What if I gave the elote treatment to Cheetos?“
Richard knew that the company didn’t really offer any flavors that were marketed toward the Latino community, so he thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to hit an untapped market.
It also helped that he was located in the Inland Empire, which has a huge latino population.
A New Spin on Cheetos
One fateful day he overheard that one of the machines broke down at the factory. The particular machine was used to coat Cheetos in their signature cheesy dust. The malfunction resulted in a good amount of uncoated Cheetos left in the reject pile.
Montanez was able to talk the factory workers into letting him take home some of the uncoated Cheetos so they wouldn’t go to waste. But that wasn’t all … he planned on testing his elote idea.
As we’re sure you already know, he was right! He coated the plain Cheetos with his own concoction of chili seasoning and immediately knew he had created something special.
He knew he had to show his bosses what he made, but instead of showing them the idea, he wanted to give them the entire finished product. Richard went on to create the packaging, illustration, name and perfected his chili seasoning.
After using his friends and family as guinea pigs, they confirmed his Hot Cheetos were a hit. Richard had stumbled upon something that would change the industry.
He was proud of himself for being so ambitious. That employee training video which made such an impact on him came to mind.
“We want every employee to act like an owner…“, the words echoed in his head.
Convinces the Big Boss
Feeling inspired, Richard knew what he had to do. He planned to call up Frito-Lay’s President, Roger Enrico, and tell him about his idea. We know what you’re thinking … in what world would the Prez of a huge company take a call from a random janitor?
Even though Richard was brilliant in many ways, he was naive. It was this naivety that let him to believe he could do just call up Enrico. It never crossed his mind what a bold idea it was, but luck was in his favor.
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.
It says a lot about Roger Enrico’s character for personally taking a call coming from a random janitor at one of his plants. After Richard explained he had an idea for a product and target demographic, Enrico assured him that he would hear him out the next time he pays a visit to the Rancho Cucamonga facility.
As luck would have it, Enrico was scheduled to pay a visit to Richard’s plant shortly after their call. He knew he only 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 situation as he was. They were upset about having to work harder to prepare the facility for big boss’ visit. Nevertheless, Richard powered through the sour attitudes and remained optimistic
Realizing that he did not know anything about how businesses work, he went straight to his public library to find any book that would help him understand what they would be looking for.
When the day came, not only did Mr. Enrico show up, he was accompanied by a number of top executives. That didn’t even scratch the surface of Richard’s confidence.
His ambition and creativity paid off when Enrico and the execs saw his makeshift packaging. In fact, Richard did such a good job designing the logo and bag, they thought the company had already began manufacturing them for the Hot Cheetos!
The gravity of the situation weighed on Richard once they brought up complicated marketing and business aspects. He realized he had no idea what they were talking about, or what he was even doing, for that matter. Richard felt in over his head and was beginning to feel defeated. What would keep him going? Encouragement.
Instead of making Montanez feel out of his league, the execs and Enrico pushed Richard to continue his pitch. By the end of the meeting, Richard’s fate was sealed, and the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were officially born.
Where Is He Now?
Thanks to Richard’s ambition, creativity and resourcefulness, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are now Frito-Lays’ best-selling product!
Since that fateful meeting, he’s held numerous positions at Frito-Lay and even secured the position of Executive Vice President.
Montanez is a prime example of what you can achieve through hard work and determination. He learned what it takes to run a business by being thrown right into the pit of it.
His story is an inspirational tale of courage, ingenuity and beating the odds. Richard hopes that younger generations of minorities will see his story and be inspired to do big things in their own lives. Whatever the goal may be, there are many ways to get there.
He even worked with PepsiCo to start a scholarship program for minorities all over the country. Richard’s story also inspired a movie which is currently in the works.
Our favorite quote from Richard Montanez regarding his success is…
“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.