Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — the spicy red version of the classic cheese-flavored snack — are something of a cultural phenomenon. A group of north Minneapolis children rapping about them has racked up more than 16 million views on YouTube. Pop star Katy Perry dressed as a Flamin’ Hot for Halloween.
Although several schools have banned them, saying they’re unhealthy, the snacks enjoy the kind of high profile that research chefs and food scientists spend their careers chasing.
But Flamin’ Hot Cheetos weren’t made by any experts. They were invented by a janitor, the son of a Mexican immigrant who dropped out of school because he struggled with English.
His name is Richard Montañez, and Fox Searchlight Pictures is making a movie about his life.
Lewis Colick, who wrote “Charlie St. Cloud” and “October Sky,” will write the first draft of the screenplay, based on the initial pitch from Montañez and producer DeVon Franklin, Variety reported. The biopic, titled “Flamin’ Hot,” will follow Montañez’s real-life rags-to-riches tale.
He grew up on a farm migrant labor camp in Guasti, Calif, a tiny town centered on winemaking. As a child, Montañez — one of 11 siblings — picked grapes at the vineyards.
In his memoir, “A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie,” he described arriving at his white elementary school. His bus was green, while the white children rode a yellow bus. Speaking only Spanish, he couldn’t understand anyone.
He dropped out of school while still in grade school and worked various low-paying jobs, from slaughtering chickens to gardening.
At age 12 in 1976, Montañez landed a job as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant. One day, he saw a companywide video of then-CEO Roger Enrico saying, “We want every worker in this company to act like an owner. Make a difference. You belong to this company, so make it better.”
Montañez took these words to heart.
One day an assembly line broke down. A batch of Cheetos didn’t receive the orange, cheesy dust that make them so popular. So Montañez took a few home to experiment.
He had formed an idea while watching a street vendor in his neighborhood make elote — grilled corn on the cob covered in cheese, butter, lime and chili. “What if I took the same concept and applied it to a Cheeto?” he thought, according to his memoir.
His friends and family loved the result. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he decided to call Enrico to pitch the idea.
Enrico invited Montañez to make a formal presentation of his product. So the janitor bought his first-ever tie for $3, then stopped by a library to get a book on marketing and copied a strategy out of it to recite during the presentation.
“I’m a little bit of an artist, so I even designed the bags and put the Cheetos in it,” he said.
Enrico loved the idea, and a new line of spicy snack food was born — with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos as its flagship. Montañez has since served in various positions throughout the company, including as an executive vice president.