From Rags To Flamin’ Hot
Richard Montanez did not realize that his family was poor. While he knew that money was tight, it was all he knew. Everyone around him was in the same position. Most of his friends and classmates grew up hoping to land a factory job in their town of Guasti, California.
High school became harder for Montanez. Because he didn’t speak English very well, he had a hard time understanding teachers. He made the difficult decision to drop out of school. His parents were dismayed but understood why he made this choice.
As luck would have it, a local Frito-Lay factory was looking for staff. He applied and crossed his fingers that they wouldn’t pass him over as so many other employers had before.
Montanez was hired as a janitor. It was the chance that he needed. His friends cheered for him. His parents were thrilled that their son was moving up in the world.
Words From Higher Up
Montanez took his job seriously. He wanted to do everything he could to hold onto the dream. In several interviews, he has said that there was never a thought in his head of moving up to a higher rung on the ladder.
His coworkers always said they could count on him. If something went wrong or they needed to have a shift covered, Montanez was the first person they would ask. He rarely declined a task or a request. When he did, it was usually because of upper management.
Most of his coworkers didn’t take the job seriously. They felt that it was just janitorial work; it wasn’t that serious. Montanez felt differently. Maybe it wasn’t a glamorous job, but it paid the bills and put food on the table.
There was another motivating factor. The president of Frito-Lay had sent a video message over to the factory, and the message in it had resonated with Montanez. An inspirational message that is not shared with employees at many other venues.
The message encouraged all employees to “act like an owner.” It was the encouragement that he needed to start to think about how to change things. He was happy with his job, but for the first time, he started thinking that there might be more.
He began dreaming of how he could be the boss. What would it mean to him and his family? For the first time in his life, Montanez began thinking about how he could move up the ladder. What would it take for him to move up in the company?
And in the world?
One day, Montanez got his break. A machine that dusted Cheetos with its trademark orange dust malfunctioned. There was a batch of puffs that were left without the powder. With permission from the higher-ups, he took some home with him.
He experimented with trying to make a spicy version of the treat. After trying a few different ways to make it, he drew inspiration from a Mexican street snack called elote. In Spanish, elote means corn cob; the recipe calls for a mayonnaise-based sauce and a blend of hot spices.
After several attempts at getting the recipe right, Montanez found a crowd-pleaser. Still, he was nervous about taking this from the table where his family ate dinner to the executives of a multi-billion dollar company. There was a fear that they wouldn’t take him seriously.
His wife talked him into letting the plant supervisors know that he came up with a new product idea. Drawing inspiration from what the company president said in the video message about acting like an owner, he went a step further.
Montanez called the office of Roger Enrico, who was the CEO of Frito-Lay. He convinced the secretary to let him talk to the head honcho. She relented and put him through. The call went well, and he was asked to make a presentation to the other executives.
There was just one issue: Montanez didn’t know how to put a presentation together.
Flamin’ Hot Market
Not to be deterred, Montanez and his wife went to the local library. They researched how to put one together. With each new thing they learned, he would practice in front of her.
He got another batch of undusted Cheetos and made up a bag for the executives to try. After dressing in his Sunday best, he headed out to the meeting. There was no way for him to know how much it would change his life.
The executives enjoyed the presentation, and they loved the sample. Montanez encouraged them to market the product towards the growing Latino market. They listened to him.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was given a soft launch in the Los Angeles market. They were a sensation, often outselling the original product in stores where they were sold. In 1992, they were given a national rollout.
Many business experts have said the new flavor rejuvenated the brand. It added billions of dollars in revenue and has launched a whole subsection of new flavors.
Enrico promoted Montanez to vice president of multicultural sales & community promotion for PepsiCo. A position that years before, he could never have imagined wanting, let alone being put in the position.
He now spends his time as a motivational speaker and author. Montanez shares his story of how he went from high school dropout to janitor to creating a cultural phenomenon that saved a brand from extinction.