How a Janitor Invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos

March 2, 2018

A good idea can come from anywhere. Whether the inspiration is drawn from years of research or a sudden flash of brilliance, the best organizations know how to spot new concepts and bring them to life no matter their source. That’s why in the 1990s the then-CEO of Frito-Lay sent a video message to his employees encouraging them to speak up if they had something to contribute. “We want every worker in this company to act like an owner,” said chief executive Roger Enrico in the video. “Make a difference. You belong to this company, so make it better.”

Richard Montañez took these words to heart perhaps more than anyone else in the business. He had been working as a janitor at Frito-Lay since he was a teenager, which is also when he first displayed his entrepreneurial spirit. As one of the few children of Mexican immigrants to attend a mostly white school in the 1960s, Montañez made extra money selling burritos to kids who had never seen a tortilla in their lives. Years later, he was once again struck with this drive to do business when he heard Enrico’s words to his employees. “Here’s my invitation. Here’s the CEO telling me, the janitor, that I can act like an owner,” said Montañez. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. Didn’t need to. But I knew I was going to act like an owner.”

His chance came when an assembly line at a Cheeto plant broke down right before the curls could be covered in cheese dust. Montañez grabbed some of the un-oranged Cheetos and took them home to experiment. He eventually became inspired when he watched a food vendor in his neighborhood making elote, a grilled Mexican street corn coated with cheese, butter, lime and chile powder. Montañez applied the same idea to Cheetos, creating a snack that his friends and family loved. Remembering the message from the video, he decided to give the CEO a call about his concept. Enrico accepted the call and gave Montañez two weeks to develop a pitch. He prepared by creating a strategy he learned from a marketing textbook and by purchasing a $3 tie, his first ever. Incredibly, Enrico loved his spicy take on the snack, and thus the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto was born. Montañez has since worked in various positions at Frito-Lay, including executive vice president.


  1. How did the Frito Lay CEO’s message motivate Montañez to develop his idea? Do you think this motivational strategy would work at other companies?
  2. Why is it important for companies to seek out new ideas from a variety of potential sources?

Source: Travis M. Andrews, “The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Movie: How a Frito-Lay Janitor Created One of America’s Most Popular Snacks,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2018. Photo by Calgary Reviews.