Publisher stands by 'Flamin' Hot' book after Frito-Lay calls origin story 'urban legend'

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Bags of Cheetos Flamin' Hot Crunchy are displayed for sale at Touchdown Food Mart, September 27, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
The publisher of a book by Richard Montañez, who claimed to have invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos, is standing behind its author despite a debunking of the origin story. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The publisher of Richard Montañez’s upcoming memoir, “Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise From Janitor to Top Executive,” is moving ahead with the book after a Los Angeles Times investigation found Montañez was not involved in the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

“During his 40+ years at Frito Lay, Richard Montañez repeated the story of his involvement with this product hundreds of times, in speeches, books, and media interviews,” Adrian Zackheim, president and publisher of Portfolio Books, said in a statement Tuesday. “Only now, just as his book is announced, are we suddenly hearing an alternate narrative about the development of this product, which seeks to diminish Richard’s contribution and to question the details of long-ago events."

Zackheim says the book's June 15 release date still holds.

“We are proud to stand with our author,” he continued. “Richard Montañez embodies the entrepreneurial spirit; we salute his dedication to inspiring people to own their own stories no matter what their circumstances.”

The book is a memoir of Montañez’s life as a janitor who rose to a senior marketing role. It contains Montañez’s account that he came up with the idea of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to appeal to Latino consumers. He claims he took home unflavored Cheetos from the Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay plant where he worked and embellished the chips with his wife’s spicy flavoring mix, then pitched the idea to company executive Roger Enrico.

Parts of the memoir that recount Montañez’s story about inventing the product do not align with the archival record, which indicates that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos had already entered the market and were distributed to stores before the events Montañez describes. Frito-Lay conducted an internal investigation that concluded Montañez was not involved with the 1990 debut of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

“None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay 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 involved in any capacity in the test market.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard,” the statement read, “but the facts do not support the urban legend.”

Montañez spoke to Variety after the investigation was published Sunday; he did not respond to multiple inquiries from The Times.

He disputed The Times’ findings, suggesting that his role in the product's development may have gone unrecorded. "All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen."

Times staff writer Sam Dean contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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