The incredible tale of how a Frito-Lay janitor pitched his billion-dollar idea to the CEO

Editor's Note: In May 2021, Frito-o-Lay disputed aspects of Montañez's story, which are collected in this story reported by the Los Angeles Times. Montañez stood by his story in a follow-up interview with Variety. The original story begins below.


Occasionally you read a story that sounds so much like a movie script you question whether it's real or fake. The tale of how Flamin' Hot Cheetos was invented is one of those stories.

Ankith Harathi shared how the beloved spicy snack came about in a viral Twitter thread, and it's a must-read.

Harathi wrote:

"A janitor making $4/hour walked into a Fortune 500 company boardroom. Shaking, he took a seat opposite the CEO.

'So I had an idea...' he nervously began.

Years later, that idea would become an iconic consumer brand and make him worth ~$20M.

Here's how that meeting went 🧶👇


Richard Montañez grew up in Cucamonga Valley, California, sharing a one-room cinderblock hut with 14 family members.

He dreaded school. Barely able to speak English, he'd cry to his mother as she was getting him ready for class.

When asked, all other students in class would eagerly shout out their dream job: Astronaut, Doctor, Racecar driver.

Richard had nothing to say. 'There was no dream where I came from.'

He dropped out of school in 4th grade and took odd jobs at farms and factories to help make ends meet.

Some years later in 1976, a neighbor let him know of a job opening for a factory janitor at the Frito-Lay plant down the road. The $4/hour pay was more than he'd ever made.

As he was getting ready for his first day of work, his grandfather pulled him aside and said:

'Make sure that floor shines. And let them know that a Montañez mopped it.'

Richard made it his mission to be the best janitor Frito-Lay had ever seen.

He spent his off-time learning about the company's products, manufacturing, marketing and more. He even asked salesmen to tag along and watch them sell.

In the mid-1980s Frito-Lay started to struggle. The CEO announced a new initiative to all 300,000 employees. 'Act like an owner' Trying to empower them to work more creatively and efficiently.

Montañez listened.

Then, he called the CEO.

'Mr. Enrico's office. Who is this?'
'Richard Montañez, in California'
'You're the VP overseeing CA?'
'No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.'
'Oh, so you're the VP of Ops?'
'No, I work inside the plant.'
'You're the manager?'
'No. I'm the janitor.'

The CEO got on the line. Loving the initiative, he told Richard to prepare a presentation, and he set a meeting in 2 weeks time.

Stunned, Richard ran to the library and picked up a book on marketing strategies. Then, he started prepping. 9) 2 weeks later, he entered that boardroom.

After taking a moment to catch his breath, he started telling them what he'd learned about Frito-Lay and the idea he'd been working on.

'I saw there was no product catering to Latinos.'

On the sales trips he shadowed he saw that in Latino neighborhoods Lays, Fritos, Ruffles, and Cheetos, were stocked right next to a shelf of Mexican spices. Frito-Lay had nothing spicy or hot.

The Latino market was ready to explode, Montañez explained.

Inspired by elote - a Mexican street corn covered in spices - Richard had created his own snack

He pulled out 100 plastic baggies. He had taken Cheetos from the factory and coated them in his own mix of spices.

He'd even sealed the bags with a clothing iron, and had hand drawn a logo on each one.

The room went silent.

After a few moments, the CEO spoke, 'Put that mop away, you're coming with us.'

Flamin' Hot Cheetos became one of the most successful launches in Frito-Lay history. They went on to become a viral, pop-culture sensation.

Richard became a VP and amassed a $20M fortune.

Not bad for a boy from Cucamonga."

This story has so many heroes. First, Montañez's grandfather, who taught him to work hard and take pride in his work no matter what it was. Second, Montañez himself for having the gumption to share his idea, the initiative to quickly gather the skills he needed to present it, and the courage to approach the CEO in the first place. And finally, the CEO who was open-minded enough to hear an idea from one of his enormous company's janitors and give him the accolades and position he deserved.

Montañez now gives speeches to help inspire others to honor their uniqueness and embrace standing out from the crowd.


See more details of his story—including how he had simply looked up the CEO's phone number in the phone book, not really knowing that that's not something people did— in his interview on The Passionate Few:

How The Multi-Billion Dollar HOT CHEETOS Idea Was Born! (Creator, Richard Montanez Interview) www.youtube.com

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
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This story was originally shared on Capital One.

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