How a Mexican Janitor Invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos

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There’s always something about self-made men that makes us admire them more than the others. A good example is the rags-to-riches story of Richard Montanez, the man behind the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

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Back in 1976, Richard, an immigrant from Mexico, was once a janitor at Frito-Lay Rancho Cucamonga branch in California. Fast forward today, Montanez is now PepsiCo North America’s executive vice president for multicultural sales and community marketing.

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He grew up in a small town of Gausti in California. He dropped out of school because he could hardly understand English. To help his family, he worked in a vineyard picking up grapes, where meals were shared at a communal table together with six or more other families.

As a child, he didn’t know he was poor. He was contented of what he had. In a town where most of the kids’ ambition was to work at the town’s factory, Montanez said, “No one ever taught me what was on the other side of the tracks. No disrespect to anyone, but my dream was to drive the trash truck.”

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And then he got a job at Frito-Lay factory in California as a janitor. But his life didn’t change much, not until the company’s president sent out video message to the employees telling them to “act like owner.”

Montanez remembered, “I looked around and didn’t see a lot of reaction from my co-workers, but for me it was the opportunity to do something different.”

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Then one day, the factory’s machine responsible for sprinkling orange cheese dust to Cheetos broke down. So he brought some Cheetos home, coated it with chili powder just like his favorite elote, a popular Mexican street food.

“I see the corn man adding butter, cheese, and chili to the corn and thought, what if I add chili to a Cheeto?” Richard narrated.

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After sharing it with his family and friends, they declared they loved it. They encouraged him to share his invented recipe to the president. After a lot of talking with the plant supervisors, finally, the secretary put his call through and the president invited him to present his idea.

He said, “I had two weeks to prepare a presentation for the company executives.”

Martinez knew nothing about product presentation, so he and his wife went to the local library and copied a book on business strategies. He then bought a $3 tie, his first ever and asked his neighbor to help him tie it before proceeding to sell his hot Cheetos to the company executives.

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

And that’s how the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was born, the top-selling product of Frito-Lay.

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Since his success, as a way of giving back to his community, Montanez has been giving out college scholarships, food, clothing, school supplies, and other goods for Kits for Kids and Feed the Children foundation.

Richard said, “Latinos who have made it like myself have a responsibility to open doors to younger generations and teach them that they can do it. I do it because I can and I know what it is like to be hungry.”

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