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Is Hulu’s new movie ‘Flamin’ Hot’ based on a true story?

The Hulu film, directed by Eva Longoria, tells the underdog story of janitor-turned-Frito-Fay-executive Richard Montañez.
Jesse Garcia
Jesse Garcia Emily Aragones / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
/ Source: TODAY

The new Hulu film “Flamin’ Hot” is the underdog story of a Frito-Lay janitor-turned-executive who against all odds made a name for himself and the popular Flamin’ Hot Cheeto.

Based on Richard Montañez’s memoir, “A Boy, A Burrito and A Cookie: from Janitor to Executive,” the film is told from Montañez’s (Jesse Garcia) point of view, growing up in East Los Angeles, his days as a cholo and getting into trouble, before settling down with his wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez). When he becomes a janitor at the Frito-Lay factory and sees a chance for growth and opportunity, he and his wife create the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto.

What is the controversy behind "Flamin' Hot"?

Montañez’s actual involvement in the spicy snack's creation has been up for debate. In 2021, a Los Angeles Times story disputed his claims that he invented the snack after they interviewed more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees who had no recollection of Montañez's contribution.

At the time, Frito-Lay said in a statement that none of their records showed that Montañez was involved “in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market.” The company continued, “That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard (…) but the facts do not support the urban legend.”

Brice Gonzalez, Annie Gonzalez, Jesse Garcia and Hunter Jones in "Flamin' Hot."
Brice Gonzalez, Annie Gonzalez, Jesse Garcia and Hunter Jones in "Flamin' Hot."Emily Aragones / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The film, directed by Eva Longoria, meanwhile, has been celebrated by its cast and crew.

It was also screened at the White House on June 15, with a White House spokesperson writing on their official Instagram that “Flamin’ Hot” is a movie “that reminds us of the power of diversity and hope in America.”

“This Administration is honored to host the first ever public screening of a film focused on the Hispanic community at the White House,” the statement continued.

In an updated statement from Frito-Lay to TODAY.com shared in June, the company says the film is “Montañez’s story, told from his point of view.”

Montañez also told TODAY.com that “really grateful” to have his story shared and it’s “an incredible feeling to know that my story is resonating with so many people.”

So what is fact and what is fiction?

Was Richard Montañez really a janitor at Frito-Lay?

Yes, Montañez got his start as a janitor at the Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga factory in 1976 when he was 18 years old, per his website.

By 1990, he was recognized for his outstanding work ethic by former CEO of PepsiCo Wayne Callow. 

Richard Montanez at the "Flamin' Hot" screening on June 9, 2023 in Hollywood, California.
Richard Montañez at the "Flamin' Hot" screening on June 9, 2023 in Hollywood, California.Steve Granitz / FilmMagic

Did Richard Montañez create the Flamin' Hot Cheeto?

By 1992, the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto was created but there are contradicting stories on who was the mastermind behind the red chip.

“Flamin’ Hot” shows Montañez and his wife mixing up the spice for what would be the hot Cheeto, with their second son being the taste tester. He then shared the final product with PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, who loved the idea and put the Flamin' Hot Cheeto into production.

While Montañez asserted he was the one to pitch the idea for the snack to a chief executive and has a “paper trail” to prove it, the L.A. Times report said he embellished his participation.

Who created the Flamin' Hot Cheeto?

According to the L.A. Times, a few people were involved in its creation. According to Frito-Lay, junior employee Lynne Greenfield was tasked with developing the new brand in 1989 and worked with a team to bring it to life.

Greenfield reached out to the company regarding Montañez’s claims and they launched an internal investigation in 2018.

In November 2021, Frito-Lay said in a statement to the L.A. Times: “We value Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers, but we do not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products to him.”

However, the investigation did note that Montañez was involved in their Sabrositas product line, which is aimed at the Latino market and included Flamin’ Hot Popcorn and Lime and Chile Fritos.

While the film does not comment on the controversy, Variety reported that the filmmakers amended the script to acknowledge the work of a separate Frito-Lay division working on a spicy flavored snack. The film shows a group of people developing their own recipe in the Midwest.

Did Richard Montañez become a marketing executive at Frito-Lay?

The film shows Montañez getting promoted to Director of Multicultural Marketing after his creation becomes a success.

In real life, Montañez was able to climb the corporate ladder and became a machinist operator in 1977. He would eventually become the vice president of multicultural sales and community promotions across PepsiCo’s North American divisions.

He retired from PepsiCo in 2019 after 42 years of working for the company, which the film shares before the credits roll.

What does Frito-Lay have to say about the “Flamin’ Hot” film?

In a statement given to TODAY.com in June, a Frito-Lay spokesperson said, “‘Flamin’ Hot’ is Richard Montañez’s story, told from his point of view.”

“His contributions to Frito-Lay are highlighted throughout the film, specifically his insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers and engage the Hispanic community, a legacy PepsiCo continues today,” the statement continued. “We are grateful to him for that, and hope people enjoy the film.”

What does Richard Montañez have to say about the controversy and film?Montañez told TODAY that the “negativity” comes with the territory.

“I guess it’s something that comes with the territory when a Mexican guy from the wrong side of the tracks triumphs,” he said in a statement. “Perhaps that success makes certain people feel uncomfortable, and I suppose they have the right to feel that way.” 

As for the film’s reception, he couldn’t be happier.

“Someone told me that the film has an audience score of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling to know that my story is resonating with so many people. I’m really grateful for that.”