Flamin Hot Cheetos: A Janitor’s Idea That Changed Chips Forever

Coby Skonord|
February 19, 2021

The best ideas come from the places you least expect, and the story of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is no exception. Richard Montañez came up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while working as a janitor for Frito-Lay back in the 1980’s.

Today, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is one of Frito-Lay’s top selling products, and Montañez is an Executive for PepsiCo leading multicultural sales and community promotions across their North American divisions and is said to be one of the most respected execs in the food industry.

The Inception

Richard Montañez is the embodiment of the American Dream. As a student, he struggled to learn english and as a result, he dropped out of high school and started working as a janitor for Frito-Lay back in 1976.

Everything changed for Montañez when he heard a video message sent out by the CEO of Frito-Lay, Roger Enrico. In the message, Enrico told his employees to “act like an owner.” This was the intrinsic motivation for Montañez, and as he recalls it ultimately created the mindset and environment he needed to invent Flamin’ Hots.

A few weeks later, when one of the assembly line machines broke down at the plant that Montanez was working in, he took some Cheetos and started experimenting. A few weeks later, he had the original recipe for Flamin’ Hots completed, and he decided to pitch it directly to the CEO of Frito-Lay.

Montañez found Enrico’s number in the company’s phone directory and when he made the call, Enrico took it. Montañez told the Enrico that he had listened to his advice and been inspired by his call to action. He pitched his idea for a new type of Cheeto to Enrico, and a janitor at Frito-Lay spoke to its CEO for over 30 minutes.

Enrico loved Montañez’s ingenuity and said he would be at Montanez’ plant in two weeks for a visit and asked Montañez to prepare a presentation for him as well as other select members of the executive team.

“I was naive, I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to call the CEO… I didn’t know the rules”

Richard Montañez

The Pitch

Montañez and his wife took a trip to the public library and rented a book on business strategies. The day leading up to his presentation, Montanez filled 100 plastic baggies with his home brewed Flamin’ Hots, sealed them with a clothing iron, and manually drew a logo on each package.

“I’m a little bit of an artist so I even designed the bags and put the Cheetos in them.”

Richard Montañez

He purchased his first ever tie, had his neighbor tie it for him, and went to sell his invention to the company CEO and some of the most highly qualified executives in America at the time.

During his presentation, there were several questions he couldn’t answer but the CEO was inspired by the presentation given by Montanez and at the end of it, the CEO of Frito Lay said, “Put that mop away, you’re coming with us.”

The Test

After six months of work and with the help of Montañez, Frito-Lay began testing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in Latino markets in east LA California, which was a wild success.

In 1992, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were green-lit for a national release, and the rest they say, is history. Upon its national launch, Flamin’ Hots became one of the most successful product launches in Frito-Lay history.

Key Takeaways

  • Employees, regardless of their role, title, or education can have disruptive ideas that can positively transform your company
  • Create a culture that enables your employees to take risks. Although this story
  • Leaders need to really be accessible and supportive. They can’t just talk the talk of innovation, they genuinely need to “walk-the-walk.” If Frito-Lay’s CEO wouldn’t have taken Richard’s call or heard his pitch, then we wouldn’t have ever been able to experience the addiction that are Flamin’ Hots.

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