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Richard Montañez, inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, speaks on how his innovation sparked the idea of a billion-dollar business. Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA News.
Richard Montañez, inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, speaks on how his innovation sparked the idea of a billion-dollar business. Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA News.

The success story of Richard Montañez: From janitor to vice president

The inventor of the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand calls his innovative idea a revelation. 

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Most of us can say we’ve gone to the grocery store and seen a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos sitting on the shelves.

However, what many may not know is how the man behind the spicy cheese-flavored snack brand sparked the idea and obtained his success.

Growing up in a migrant farm workers camp in Southern California during the 1960s, one of 10 children born to Mexican immigrants, Richard Montañez used to pick grapes along with his family. 

When his mother sent him to school with a burrito for lunch, he recalled feeling embarrassed because at the time, “the world hadn’t seen a burrito yet,” he said during a session at the B.PHL Innovation Festival on Oct. 17. 

That same night, he went home and asked his mother to make him a bologna sandwich like all the other students. Instead, however, she packed him two burritos - one for him, and one to give to another student and make a friend. 

By the end of the week, he had started selling burritos for $0.25 a piece, said Montañez. 

“As much as I wanted to fit in, I soon realized that I was made to stand out,” he added. 

Nonetheless, he struggled in school due to the language barrier. As a result, Montañez dropped out of school at a very young age and started working full-time gardening, killing chickens, washing cars, and other low-paying jobs. 

“But I tell people I have a Ph.D,” he said. “Because I was poor, hungry, and determined.” 

One day while working at a car wash, a friend told him that Frito Lay was hiring. He went to the plant, asked for an application, and had his wife fill it out for him. He returned the application and was hired as a janitor on the spot. 

Upon his hiring, Moñtanez’s grandfather said something to him that Montañez says “made him successful today.”

“He said, ‘When you mop that floor, you make sure that it shines and when people see it, they know that a Montañez mopped it.’”

So, he took on that challenge every day. 

“Everything that I do… is about my last name,” said Montañez.

The idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was inspired by a grilled corn with chili, cheese, butter, and lime he bought from a street vendor. 

For Montañez, the idea of innovation comes from a simple question: “What if?”

“What if I put chili on a Cheeto?” he thought.

The next day, he filled a bag with unseasoned Cheetos, went home and tested placing chili powder on them. He tried it, along with his wife and other family members. They all liked it.  

An opportunity arose when he received a chance to pitch his new idea to the former CEO. The CEO, intrigued by Montañez’s revelation, gave him two weeks to prepare a presentation.

In preparation, he went to the library to check out books on marketing. Today, the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand is a billion-dollar business, and Montañez now serves as the vice president of multicultural sales & community promotions across PepsiCo's North American divisions.

“Hot Cheetos came [into] existence because of a ridiculous idea,” he said. “A revelation.”

Since 1991, Flamin' Hot Cheetos have been placed on store shelves nationwide, sparking a new billion-dollar idea. 

Montañez is a shining example of what innovation and the desire not to cave into fear can have in the life and career path of an individual.

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