Eva Longoria's film on the creation of Flamin' Hot Cheetos took SXSW by storm. But is the story true?

Richard Montanez, a former janitor in a Frito-Lay factory, has taken credit for the snack's invention. Company officials dispute his claim.

click to enlarge Eva Longoria's Flamin' Hot will be begin streaming on Hulu June 9. - Shuterstock / MDV Edwards
Shuterstock / MDV Edwards
Eva Longoria's Flamin' Hot will be begin streaming on Hulu June 9.
Among the most torrid movie premieres at Austin's SXSW film festival this year was Flamin' Hot, billed as the "true" story behind the invention of Flamin' Hot Cheetos — perhaps San Antonio's most beloved snack food.

Thanks to its subject matter and its direction by Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria — who also happens to be the former wife of San Antonio Spur Tony Parker — the feel-good comedy is likely to find an Alamo City audience once it hits Hulu on June 9.

Just the same, controversy is heating up about the veracity of Flamin' Hot's rags-to-riches narrative, which depicts a Latino janitor at a Frito-Lay as the snack's creator. A key concern? Frito-Lay says the events portrayed in the film never happened.

Some facts aren't in dispute, however.

Flamin' Hot, which premiered March 11 at Austin's Paramount Theatre, follows the story of Richard Montanez, the janitor who maintains he's the grand papi of Hot Cheetos.

After several run-ins with the law, Montanez — played by Quinceanera star Jesse Garcia — applies for a janitorial job at the Frito-Lay factory, begging a manager to hire him because he has a PhD: "Poor, hungry and determined."

The scene sets the tone for the cheeky humor that plays out through the film.

Once at the factory, the ambitious Montanez convinces a floor engineer to help him learn mechanics with the hopes of one day moving up the corporate ladder. However, it's not long before the turbulent '80s economy threatens to shut down the factory.

In a desperate attempt to save Frito-Lay, Roger Enrico — then the head honcho of its parent company, PepsiCo — sends a video to his workers asking them to get creative and "think like a CEO."

While eating chips covered in Tajin in a park, Montanez has his lightbulb moment and embarks on creating the perfect snack for Frito-Lay. Like the chip's he munches in the park, these will be crunchy, hot and slightly sweet. They'll be the Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

The rest is history. Or is it?

click to enlarge The director and cast of "Flamin' Hot at the films world premier at South by Southwest in Austin on March 11. - Michael Karlis
Michael Karlis
The director and cast of "Flamin' Hot at the films world premier at South by Southwest in Austin on March 11.

The film is based on the real Montanez's memoir Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive. However, according to a 2021 Los Angeles Times investigation, Montanez's story is just that: a story.

"None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin' Hot Cheetoh test market," Frito-Lay officials wrote in a statement to the Times. "We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not in any capacity in the test market."

According to theTimes, a junior employee with an MBA named Lynne Greenfeld was assigned to develop the spicy red snack. She even came up with its name, the paper reports.

Even so, Montanez began taking credit for the snack that took the nation by storm in the late 2000s, according to the Times. He was able to demand steep speaking fees to appear at marketing events at Target and Walmart, along with Harvard and the University of Southern California.

So, is Montanez running a con, or is Corporate America trying to undermine the achievements of a creative, hard-working person of color who started at the bottom?

More debate is bound to ensue once the movie hits Hulu. Whatever the outcome, it's a safe bet that plenty of San Antonians will be streaming it this summer, probably while chowing down on Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

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Michael Karlis

Michael Karlis is a Staff Writer at the San Antonio Current. He is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., whose work has been featured in Salon, Alternet, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, NewsBreak, 420 Magazine and Mexico Travel Today. He reports primarily on breaking news, politics...

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