Richard Montañez claims he invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos. He's written two books about it, recorded speaking engagements, and has a biopic of his life directed by Eva Longoria set to begin filming this summer.
However, according to a new report from the Los Angeles Times, Frito-Lay, the parent company of Cheetos, claims Montañez did not invent the popular product, and even went so far as to say he "was not involved" in its creation at all.
"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, but the facts do not support the urban legend."
In the article, Frito-Lay claims that Lynne Greenfeld, an employee at Frito-Lay's corporate office, developed Flamin' Hot Cheetos in 1989, and the company credits her with the name and helping bring the product to market. According to the company, Greenfeld contacted Frito-Lay in 2018 after hearing Montañez's story, and they began an internal investigation which included interviewing dozens of employees and searching the "archival record."
"We value Richard's many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers, but we do not credit the creation of Flamin' Hot Cheetos or any Flamin' Hot products to him," the statement to the Times continued.
But Montañez, who began working for Frito-Lay as a janitor, told Variety he came up with the idea during one of Frito-Lay's "method improvement programs" where they looked for new ideas and fresh products.
"That kind of inspired me, so I always had these ideas for different flavors and products," Montañez told Variety. "The only difference in what I did, is I made the product, instead of just writing the idea on a piece of paper and sending it. They would forward over those products to the appropriate people and I didn't know, because I was just a frontline worker."
Montañez claimed that he does not know Greenfeld, but he remembers testing out the seasoning for the Cheetos in his garage. However, he said he was "pushed out" of testing the product in the market.
"Nobody was telling me, 'This is how executives work.' I wasn't a supervisor, I was the least of the least," he told Variety. "I think that might be one of the reasons why they don't have any documentation on me. Why would they?"
The film set to be released about his life is scheduled to begin filming this summer, and Montañez told Variety that he sees no reason why Frito-Lays' claims would impact the project.
"I think that [the film is] going to inspire people to do the right thing. Don't make the mistake Montañez made. Document everything," he said. "The story isn't really about Hot Cheetos. The story is about overcoming adversity and racial discrimination."
In a statement, a spokesperson for PepsiCo — Frito-Lay is a subsidiary of PepsiCo — tells PEOPLE, "A great deal has been recently discussed about the origin of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. The information we shared with the media has been misconstrued by some, which resulted in confusion around where we stand, a range of emotions among our employees and consumers and a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montañez and the Latino community."
The statements adds that PepsiCo attributes "the launch and success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez."
"Far from being an urban legend, Richard had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today," the statement continues. "His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. To be clear, we have no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders."
In the statement, PepsiCo acknowledges there "was a separate division team developing a spicy product offering for Cheetos and other snack brands that were tested in market and found their way into permanent products on store shelves, including Flamin' Hot Cheetos."
"Different work streams tackling the same product without interacting occasionally occurred in the past when divisions operated independently and were not the best at communicating," the statement continues. "However, just because we can't draw a clear link between them, doesn't mean we don't embrace all of their contributions and ingenuity, including Richard's."
The spokesperson for PepsiCo concludes the statement, saying, "Richard is an important part of PepsiCo's history and the success of the company. He is an inspiration and his story cannot be belittled. We regret the confusion that has come from the recent speculation, but most importantly want Richard to know he is valued and cared for among PepsiCo's employees and we only wish him happiness and success."