Richard Montanez. From janitor to founding flaming hot cheetos

The Frito-Lay Janitor Who Invented Cheetos

Richard Montanez was a janitor who was making $4/hour at a Fortune 500 company. One day he walked into the company boardroom and sat opposite the CEO.

He sat there nervously and told the CEO “So I had an idea...” Years later, this idea became an iconic consumer brand and made him worth $20 million dollars.

Here’s how the meeting went:

Richard Montanez grew up in Cucamonga Valley, California sharing a one-room cinder block hut with 14 family members. Richard dreaded going to school, could barely speak english and would cry to his mother as she was getting him ready for school.

In class when all students were asked what they wanted to do, his peers would yell: Astronaut, Doctor, Race Car Driver, and etc. Richard had nothing to say. “There was no dream where I came from.”

Richard dropped out of school in the 4th grade and took odd jobs on farms, and factories to help make ends meet.

Years later in 1976, a neighbour let him know of a job opening for a factory janitor at the Frito-Lay plant down the road. The $4/hour was more money than he’d ever made in his life.

As Richard was getting ready for his first day at work, his father pulled him aside and told him: “Make sure that floor shines. And let them know that a Montanez mopped it.” Richard made it his mission to be the best janitor Frito-Lay had ever seen.

He spent his off-time learning about the company’s products. He studied manufacturing, marketing, and more. He even asked the salesman to tag along to watch them sell so he could learn more about the business.

In the mid 1980s, Fruit-Lay began to struggle. The CEO announced a new initiative to all of it’s 300,000 employees. “Act like an owner” to empower them to work more creatively and efficiently.

Monetize listened.

Then, he called the CEO.

“Mr. Enrico’s office. Who is this?”

“Richard Montañez, in California”

“You’re the VP overseeing CA?”

“No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.”

“Oh, so you’re the VP of Ops?”

“No, I work inside the plant.”

“You’re the manager?”

“No. I’m the janitor.”

The CEO got on the line and spoke to Richard. He loved his initiative and told him to prepare a presentation, and he set a meeting in 2 weeks time. Richard was stunned by this first turn around and ran to the library to pick up a book on marketing strategies to prep for his meeting. 

2 weeks later, he entered the boardroom. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he started telling them what he learned about Frito-Lay and the idea he’d been working on. 

“I saw there was no product catering to Latinos.” On the sales trips he shadowed, he saw that in Latino neighbourhoods; Lays, Fritos, Ruffles, and Cheetos, were stocked right next to a shelf of Mexican spices. Frito-Lay had nothing spicy or hot to it.

The Latino market was ready to explode, Monatex explained. Inspired by elote - a Mexican street corn covered in spices; Richard had created his own snack. He pulled out 100 plastic baggies. He had taken Cheetos from the factory and coated them in his own mix of spices.

Richard even went as far to seal the bags with a clothing iron, and even drew a logo on each one. The room went silent. After a few moments, the CEO spoke, “Put that mop away, you’re coming with us.”

Flamin Hot Cheetos became one of the most successful launches in Frito-Lay history. Cheetos went on to become a viral, and a pop-culture sensation. Richard became a VP and amassed a $20M fortune.

Takeaway: There are two inspiring individuals in this story. The first one is Richard who was willing to learn, grow and not let his circumstances stop him from striving for more. The second person was the CEO. He was willing to listen to the janitor to pitch him on an idea and act on it. If the CEO wasn’t opened minded, all of this wouldn’t have happened for Richard and the CEO. 

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