The story of Richard Montañez and the creation of Hot Cheetos : Planet Money A janitor walks out of a chip factory with a bag of dustless Cheetos and changes the global snack game forever. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Hot Cheetos

Hot Cheetos

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John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Bags of Cheetos Crunch Flamin' Hot are displayed at a store in Chicago.
John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Editor's note: We want to tell you more about this episode that we've learned since we first released it:

This episode centers on a claim that Richard Montañez invented a product that came to be known as Flamin' Hot Cheetos. He claimed he and his wife inspired the seasoning that led to the chip we find on store shelves to this day. This is inaccurate.

Bottom line: Hot Cheetos were on the market in the Midwest before Montañez ever pitched an idea for hot Cheetos. He wasn't involved in developing that product. However, our reporting shows he was involved in pitching a similar product in California.

PepsiCo, parent company of Frito-Lay, has since released a statement saying it "can't draw a clear link between" the California and Midwest efforts. You can read its full statement here.

Here's more about what we've learned.

First, the timeline laid out in our episode is incorrect. Montañez told us he pitched an idea for hot Cheetos in a meeting in 1990. According to Patti Rueff, the person who set up that meeting, and Al Carey, a former executive who was in the meeting, it could not have happened before 1992. By that time, products had already been sold in the Midwest under the trademark Flamin' Hot.

We spoke to Lynne Greenfeld, who led the team that created the Midwest products. Montañez was not involved. But she and other former employees say Montañez did pitch flavors and product ideas. Carey maintains Montañez pitched him an idea for a spicy Cheeto that he approved and rolled out in California. It came out after Flamin' Hot products were already in stores elsewhere in the country, and Carey now says the California product used seasoning from the Midwest products. In our episode, we ask whether Montañez and his wife were ever compensated for their recipe. It's now clear Flamin' Hot Cheetos never used their recipe.

As we say in the original episode, the reporting is based on the recollection of people at Frito-Lay roughly 30 years ago, as well as what the company told us, which it said was based, in part, on an earlier internal investigation.

Before we published the episode, we corresponded with Frito-Lay over a dozen times by email, phone and text. We asked Frito-Lay directly, multiple times, whether Montañez was involved in the invention of Hot Cheetos. It told us, "We do not credit the product creation to him and him alone." When we asked Frito-Lay to clarify whether that meant Montañez was not involved at all, it said, "He was a part of it. Yes. Sure."

Frito-Lay told us about the existence of the Midwest release of Flamin' Hot products. But it told us it was possible the Midwest product could have been happening at the same time as the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product: "At the time of the Rancho Cucamonga meeting, [Frito-Lay North America] was divided into divisions, with each division operating independently with its own executive team. As such, the West Division may not have been aware of the Metroline [Midwest] products/test." Frito-Lay seemed to be speculating. So for our episode, we relied on Montañez's recollection of the timeline. We shouldn't have.

After we published the episode, and after the Los Angeles Times disputed Montañez's claims, Frito-Lay told us: "As a matter of course, we don't release the results of internal investigations; however, upon learning that the internal investigation results had been shared with the LA Times, we felt that we needed to be transparent and we shared information from our investigation in more definitive ways than previously shared with NPR's Planet Money."

Separately, in the episode, we say Montañez taught marketing at Columbia University. That was a reporting error. He has not taught there. He has given lectures at other universities.

We'll keep monitoring this, and if we discover anything else that needs updating, we'll do that here.

Richard Montañez walked into the Frito-Lay factory in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., one day and filled a trash bag with unseasoned, cheeseless, Cheetos. He was a janitor and machine operator at the plant. But he and his wife had an idea. To create a spicy chip inspired by their Mexican roots: Hot ... Cheetos.

It was the first step in a long and bumpy journey that eventually earned Montañez the nickname, "The Godfather of Hispanic Marketing."

Today, there are all kinds of flavors catered toward Latinos, like Limón chips, Chile-Limón, or Takis, which are basically a lifestyle. But chile and Latino-inspired flavors were not super common in the U.S. back in the '90s. Hot Cheetos paved the way.

Montañez tells his full story in his upcoming book, Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive.

Music: "Losing My Head Over You," "Midtown," "Hot Cheetos & Takis."

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