The Janitor who invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos

We have quite an inspiring story ahead of us today. It’s about RIchard Montanez who was a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant. He didn’t have any fancy titles or degrees. In fact, he had just a 4th grade level education and he couldn’t read or write. But he was the man behind Flamin’ hot cheetos which is one of the most iconic snack foods in the world. But let’s start from the beginning.

Montanez grew up in a tiny farming town east of Los Angeles. His mother, father, grandfather and 11 children slept together in one room at the labor camp of a grape farm. Montanez couldn’t speak English when he was a child so he had a hard time fitting in with everyone. And before you know it, he stopped going to school and started working on the fields with his father and grandfather. He used to do odd jobs like slaughtering chicken at a poultry factory, washing cars and picking weeds. Because of his limited education, few economic opportunities came by.

At a nearby Frito-Lay plant, they were looking for a janitor. The pay was $4 an hour which was multiples of what he made in the field. To him, it represented a better life with insurance, benefits and social mobility. When he told his grandfather that he was interested in the job, he gave him an advice, that would forever stick with him. It goes like this, “Make sure that floor shines and let them know that a Montanez mopped it.

And he certainly did follow the advice. Often after he cleaned a room and people walked into it, they’d say that it smells fresh. But his determination didn’t just stop at that. In between his shifts, he went on to learn as much as he could about the company’s products. He spent time in the warehouse and watched the machines churn out snacks in the lonely midnight hours. And all these curiosity paid off soon.

In the mid 1980s, Frito-Lay had fallen on tough times. The CEO at that time was Roger Enrico who video-taped a message for the company’s 300k employees. In the message he encouraged every employee to “act like an owner”. The message was brushed off by most employees as a management chiché but Montanez took it to heart. 

He asked a Frito-Lay salesman if he could shadow him and learn more about the process. When they were in a convenience store in a Latino neighborhood, he observed that Frito-Lay did not have any spicy or hot products.

Fast forward a few weeks and Montañez stopped at a local vendor to get some elote, a Mexican “street corn” doused in chili powder, salt, cotija, lime juice, and crema fresca. And he thought to himself, what if he put chilli on a Cheeto?

Nobody at Frito-Lay had thought about the Latino market at that time but Montanez understood the potential. One late night in the production facility he got some Cheetos that hadn’t yet dusted in cheese and took them home. With the help of his wife, he covered them with his own mixture of chilli powder and other secret spices. And when he finally gave the treats to his family members and friends, they all loved it.

And then he checked the company directory and called the CEO’s office. The CEO like I said before was Roger Enrico at that time. When Roger’s assistant picked up the call and Montanez identified himself as a janitor, she paused like what seemed an eternity. And finally, Roger picked up and Montanez told him that he studied the company’s product and identified a demand in the market, so he crafted some sort of a recipe in his home kitchen. 

Roger loved the genuineness of the idea and told him that he’d be in the plant in 2 weeks and asked him to prepare a presentation. After Montanez hung up the phone he was scolded by the plant manager for calling the CEO like that because only top tier executives get to call the CEO directly.

Montanez at that time was 26 years old. He didn’t know how to read or write properly and had absolutely no knowledge about business proposals and presentations. He and his wife went to the library and copied the first 5 paragraphs of a marketing strategy book word for word onto transparencies. He then went home and prepared 100 plastic bags full of his homemade recipe and sealed them with a clothing iron and after that, manually drew a logo and design on each package.

After all this preparation, the day of presenting it to the CEO finally came. He was giving his pitch in a room with the CEO and other top tier executives while suddenly someone asked him “How much market share do you think you can get?”. He then just paused and opened his arms wide and said “This much market share!” The room went silent as the CEO stood up and said to everyone in the room “Ladies and gentleman, do you realize we have an opportunity to go after this much market share?” he says as he mimics Montanez’s hand gestures. He then told Montanez to put that mop away and to go with him.

Fast forwarding to 6 months, Frito-Lay had perfected a recipe with the help of Montanez. They began testing it in small Latino markets in East Los Angeles at first. If it performed well over there, then they would move forward with this and if not, they’d shelf the product. And if the product was shelved, Montanez would likely return to his janitorial duties. He realized that this was one shot and to make matters more intense, some people didn’t want things to work out for him.

There was a group of executives who just thought he got lucky. They all have fancy degrees and are paid a lot of money to come up with these ideas. And when they saw that a janitor with no degree is doing the job just as well as them, they all just wanted him to fail. To make sure the testing in small Latino markets were successful, Montanez gathered a small team of his family members and friends. They all went to those test markets and bought every bag of Hot Cheetos they could find. They’d tell the shop owners that this flavor is great and the next week, there would be a whole rack full of them.

Finally in 1992, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos got the greenlight for a nation-wide release. And it didn’t take long for it to become one of the most successful product launches in Frito-Lay history. And in present times, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is still one of the best selling products of the companies. It brings in billions of dollars and is loved by celebrities and middle-schoolers alike. They even have a rap song about them.

And as for Montanez, he’s no longer a janitor. He rose through the ranks and is now the Vice President of multicultural sales for PepsiCo America which is the holding company of Frito-Lay. Before Montanez joined PepsiCo as an executive, there were only 3 Cheeto products. But since then, the company has launched more than 20 flavors and each worth more than $300 million. He is now recognised as one of the most influential Hispanic leaders in America by Fortune and Newsweek. He’s also an amazing speaker who tours the country delivering keynote speeches. Fox Searchlight Pictures is now working on a biopic about his life and the title is very appropriately named “Flamin’ Hot”.

He still lives in the same neighborhood and gives back to the community through his nonprofit and also teaches MBA classes at a college. One student asked him how he was teaching without a PhD to which he responded “I do have a PhD. I’ve been poor, hungry and determined.”

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