Greatness can come from anywhere. Insight, ingenuity, and creativity are not limited to board rooms, market research, or focus groups.
It’s the person with a genuine perspective that can see what others can’t.
That’s the story behind Richard Montañez and the creation of a beloved snack food for Frito-Lay.
Even though he started as a janitor, he immersed himself in every aspect of his company, and it gave him the insight to create a product that was missing in the market.
This is a story of initiative, perseverance, and the quiet pursuit of a dream.
Who Was Richard Montañez?
Our story starts in the 60s in California. Richard Montañez was from Cucamonga Valley and was one of 14 family members that lived in a cinderblock hut that only had one room.
Dreams of a better future were hard to imagine for the young Montañez. He dreaded going to school, and his lack of English made it tough to fit in and succeed.
He would often cry to his mother about having to go to school. Other kids would have ambitions to be a doctor, or astronaut as their dream job.
When Montañez was asked this question, he never had an answer.
There were no dreams where he came from — so it made no sense to wish for a future that wouldn’t be able to come true. Life to him was about being poor, tired, and hungry.
The frustration of school and life forced Montañez to drop out after the fourth grade. At this incredibly young age, he started working odd jobs on farms and factories to help out the family.
In 1976, a neighbor let Montañez know about a job opening for a janitor at the new Frito-Lay factory that was opening just down the road.
The job paid just $4 an hour — but this was more than he had ever made in his life.
Becoming the Best Frito-Lay Employee Possible
On his first day of work, Montañez’s grandfather pulled him aside to deliver a message that would help instill the work ethic that would take him to another level.
His grandfather insisted that he made the floors shine in the factory, so everyone knew that it was a Montañez that mopped them.
He took this advice to make sure he would become the best janitor Frito-Lay had ever seen.
Montañez immersed himself in everything to do with the snack company. When he wasn’t doing his janitorial duties, he spent all his time learning about the company’s products, the manufacturing, and even how the marketing worked.
He was so engrossed with the company that he would ask the salespeople if he could tag along to see how the sales process worked.
Montañez made it a point to learn every single aspect of the business and company he worked for.
He was not only their best janitor — he was becoming one of their best employees.
Frito-Lay Hits a Rough Patch
It’s hard to think of the snack giant as anything less than a powerhouse in the market, but there was a time when they struggled.
In the mid-1980s, the company was at a low point. Profits were dropping, and they weren’t putting out any new products that connected with consumers.
They were also inadvertently overlooking a massive new market.
The CEO at the time announced a new initiative: he told all 300,000 employees to “act like an owner.”
He was trying to empower his workforce to become as creative and efficient as possible to help the company turn around.
Montañez paid attention to this message, but in reality, he had already been doing this for quite some time.
With all his extra work, insights, and knowledge, Montañez bravely called up the CEO. But the CEO was confused at first as to who he was speaking to.
He first thought he was speaking to the VP overseeing all of California. Then he thought it was the VP of operations at the Cucamonga Plant. Then he believed it was the manager.
When the CEO finally realized he was speaking to a janitor, he didn’t dismiss him but was impressed with the initiative he saw.
A New Snack for a Growing Market
Montañez shared his insights into a snack he believed would help Frito-Lay turn the corner. The CEO was on board and had Montañez prepare a presentation that would lay out the details in two weeks’ time.
Montañez ran to the library to pick up books on marketing strategies to prepare himself for the presentation.
The marketing books — along with his time spent studying every aspect of the business — allowed him to prep for his life-changing meeting.
When the day of the presentation came, Montañez went in and told them everything he had learned about Frito-Lay and the idea he had been working on.
Montañez was Latino and noticed that the company didn’t have any products that catered to the Latino community.
The big thing he noticed on the sales trips he went on was the layout of the grocery store shelves in Latino neighborhoods.
Montañez noticed that Lays, Ruffles, Fritos, and Cheetos were stocked right next to shelves containing Mexican spices.
Frito-Lay didn’t have any products that were spicy or hot.
The Latino market was one that was ready to explode — and Montañez knew it. He had been a big fan of ‘elote,’ which is an ear of Mexican street corn covered in spices — and he had used this as inspiration to create his own snack.
During the meeting, Montañez pulled out 100 baggies that contained his new snack.
One day, at work, a machine had malfunctioned causing it to spit out plain Cheetos that didn’t have the cheese powder dust on them. He took the plain Cheetos home and coated them in a combination of spices he had created.
Since he was aware of marketing and branding, Montañez had also used an iron to seal the bags shut and hand drew a logo on each bag.
After a brief period of silence in the meeting, Montañez was told to put the mop away because he was going with them…
The prototype that Montañez created would become Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
They become one of the most successful product launches in Frito-Lay history and helped to capture — as Montañez had predicted — a huge segment of the Latino community.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos used a massive marketing campaign and they become a pop-culture snack sensation.
The new flavor rejuvenated the Frito-Lay brand and has gone on to make billions of dollars.
The ‘Flamin’ Hot’ variety of Cheetos has become the cornerstone of their snack marketing and led to other creations such as:
- Flamin’ Hot Crunchy
- Flamin’ Hot Puffs
- Flamin’ Hot Limon Crunchy
- XXTRA Flamin’ Hot Crunch (my favorite)
- Reduced-Fat Flamin’ Hot Puffs
There may be no better ‘rags to riches’ story than that of Richard Montañez. He would end up becoming a VP and has amassed a $20 million fortune.
Montañez is now a PepsiCo executive and a movie about his life is in the works. The movie is to be directed by Eva Longoria and is called “Flamin’ Hot.”
The story of Richard Montañez is an amazing example of how seemingly average people are capable of great things.
It’s also an excellent lesson in the awareness of what certain markets want and striking while the iron is hot.