'Flamin' Hot' Will Leave You Cold

Directed by Eva Longoria

Starring Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub, Emilio Rivera

Photo: Anna Kooris

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 8, 2023

The story of how Richard Montañez, a janitor at Frito-Lay, invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos by drawing on the flavours of his Mexican heritage, is one of those inspirational all-American tales — seeming proof that the American Dream is actually real, and that anyone can become successful with a little ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. Montañez turned his incredible story into a memoir, 2013's A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive, which has now been adapted into a film by director Eva Longoria. A second memoir followed in 2021, and he's an in-demand motivational speaker.

The story, unfortunately, is at least partly false, having been debunked in 2021 by the Los Angeles Times, whose reporter found no evidence that Montañez was involved in creating the product in the late '80s and early '90s, and it wasn't until decades later that he made a name for himself by publicly taking credit. In a statement to the L.A. Times, Frito-Lay called the claims an "urban legend." It's a nice example of how the American Dream and its myth of the self-made man melts away under even the slightest scrutiny.

Luckily for Montañez, and unfortunately for viewers, Flamin' Hot doesn't bother to examine its own subject, resulting in a bland rags-to-riches story that doubles as a glorified ad for Cheetos (as well as Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, Inc.). Richard's story begins in childhood, with a montage of early years spent in a migrant labour camp in California with an abusive father. The film gestures toward serious subject matter — namely, the everyday racism faced by Mexican-Americans — while the cheerful music keeps things frivolous, and Flamin' Hot proceeds with its absurd fantasy about the supposed meritocracy of capitalism.

Flash forward to adulthood and Richard (Jesse Garcia) is involved in drug gangs but looking for a way out — which he finds when he scores a job as a janitor at the Frito-Lay factory. He doesn't exactly rocket his way up the ranks, but when the economy takes a downturn, he devises a spicy seasoning that will appeal to Mexican-American consumers and save the factory.

In a laughably implausible scene, he calls up kindly PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), who is all ears when a janitor tells him about the "spicy slurry" he whipped up at home. Even if Montañez's story hadn't already been debunked, this would be a parody-level depiction of the immense respect a CEO has for the janitor who cold calls him to pitch a new product. Like a boomer telling a postgraduate to go job-hunting with a fistful of resumes, it's a hopefully naïve misrepresentation of capitalism, and about as believable as one of those "and then everyone clapped" memes. (Notably, Shalhoub wasn't actually the CEO of PepsiCo when Flamin' Hots were developed, which is something Montañez's entire story rests on.)

In a similarly ridiculous scene near the end of the movie, Montañez's young child solves the problem of why Flamin' Hots are initially selling poorly: because Frito-Lay isn't advertising them. Wow! Who knew this kid was a marketing genius?!

I'm here to review what the filmmakers made, not play armchair scriptwriter about what they should have — but it's tempting to imagine what Flamin' Hot might have been had it been a mystery that explored the contradictions of Montañez's story, rather than simply regurgitating them. A few scenes playfully allude to Montañez's habit of exaggeration (namely when he imagines boardroom brawls at PepsiCo), but that's as close as Flamin' Hot comes to interrogating its unreliable narrator.

Montañez really did start as a janitor and rise the corporate ranks at Frito-Lay; there may well be an interesting story here, but Flamin' Hot is strangely frictionless, propelling Montañez from the very bottom of the ladder to the top, all because he called PepsiCo's head office and essentially said, "Let me speak to the CEO." This is a film that expects viewers to believe that people receive standing ovations from their coworkers for getting promoted to management.

When production began on Flamin' Hot in 2019, Frito-Lay reportedly reached out to tell the production companies that the story wasn't true, but filming went ahead in 2021 with the plot unchanged.

But hey, at least one part of the story is true: Montañez really did come from nothing and, with some help from Flamin' Hot, made himself what I can only assume is a pile of money. Now that's capitalism.

Latest Coverage