The Definitive Guide to Business

How a janitor invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos and became an exec at PepsiCo

Janitor-turned-executive Richard Montanez
Imeh Akpanudosen | Getty Images
Janitor-turned-executive Richard Montanez

Before he came up with the idea that changed his life, Richard Montañez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, grew up in a migrant labor camp in Southern California. He and his ten siblings lived in a one-bedroom apartment with their parents before moving to an 800-square foot three-bedroom home. Those experiences shaped him.

"I have a PhD of being poor, hungry and determined," the janitor-turned-inventor-turned-executive tells the Washington Post. "And I think when you've experienced those three things, there's a lot of wisdom. When you've been poor, there's so much innovation that comes out of that."

Montañez, now in his 50s, has been innovative since grade school.

When his mom sent him to school on the first day of 3rd grade with a burrito for lunch, he was embarrassed. It was the 1960s, and back then, "very few people had seen a burrito," he writes in his memoir "A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie." "There I was with this burrito and with everyone staring at me. I put it back in my bag and hid it."

The next day, when he asked his mom to make him "a bologna sandwich and a cupcake like the other kids," she instead packed him two burritos: one for him to eat and one for him to use to make a friend. By the end of the week, the seven-year-old entrepreneur was selling burritos for $0.25 each.

"I learned at that moment that there was something special about being different, that there was a reason that we all just couldn't fit into the same box," Montañez writes.

After struggling to pick up on basic reading and writing in school, Montañez dropped out before getting his diploma and worked a series of low-paying jobs, including slaughtering chickens and gardening. He was working at a car wash when a friend came by and told him that Frito-Lay was hiring.

He went to the Frito-Lay plant in Southern California, asked for an application and had his future wife fill it out on his behalf, since he "could barely read or write," he recalls. He returned the application later that day and the company hired him as a janitor.

The idea for Flamin' Hot Cheetos came to him when, one day, a machine broke in the assembly line and a batch of Cheetos didn't get dusted with their standard orange cheese powder. Montañez took the plain Cheetos home and experimented with putting chili powder on them, an idea inspired by a street vendor in his neighborhood, who made Mexican grilled corn with lime and chili.

His friends and family liked the taste, so he decided to pitch the product to the CEO. After all, the CEO at the time, Roger Enrico, had sent out a video "telling all employees he wanted them to take ownership of the company," Montañez writes. He decided to do just that: "I called him up, not knowing you weren't supposed to call the CEO."

He got the CEO's assistant on the line, who helped put him through to the CEO. Enrico then gave Montañez two weeks to prepare a presentation for the company executives.

Montañez headed straight to the library to check out books on marketing, designed a unique bag to package his product and walked into the meeting wearing a $3 tie.

"They were amazed at the product design," he recalls, and Flamin' Hot Cheetos was born. Today, the spicy version of the classic snack is one of Frito-Lay's most popular items and has evolved into a cultural phenomenon.

Montañez's career took off after the presentation. He climbed his way up the corporate ladder within PepsiCo to executive level and now he gives motivational talks and presents to companies on the importance of diversity in business. Fox Searchlight Pictures is even making a movie about his rags-to-riches story.

The former janitor realizes that his life would probably look very different today had he not called up Enrico, and he uses that fact to inspire and encourage others. "Don't take your position for granted, regardless of what that position may be," Montañez writes. "CEO or janitor, act like you own the company."

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