July 7, 2023


“Flamin’ Hot”: Snack Food Hollywood Mythmaking

By: Justin Tucker

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” is a line from the seminal Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This film explores how fact and fiction are blurred in the Wild West mythos and storytelling in general. We know that life on the American frontier was much different than what is often depicted in books or seen in movies.

Regarding films based on real-life people, Hollywood often takes liberties when telling its stories. Sometimes this is done to streamline the narrative to fit within a reasonable running time. Other times, this happens for dramatic effect. As with the many cases in movies based on the life of Jesse James, this is done because making up exciting situations that did not actually happen can make for a more interesting story.

Director Eva Longoria’s Flamin’ Hot, her first feature film, tells the story of Richard Montañez, played passionately by Jesse Garcia. Montañez, as told in the movie, starts out his career at Frito-Lay as a janitor and later becomes the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Or so he claims. Prior to the film’s production, Montañez’s claims about inventing the Flamin’ Hot concept were contradicted by other Frito-Lay employees. Regardless, Longoria and company decided to “print the legend” and forged ahead. If you can watch Flamin’ Hot without being distracted by the fact its plot is based on embellishments, then you can see the film does have some redeeming qualities.

It’s an inspiring parable of how hard work, initiative, ingenuity, and staying out of trouble can lead to a life of success. When we meet the young Montañez at the beginning of the film, he shows his entrepreneurial spirit by selling burritos to his classmates but later he commits crimes just to get by.  He and his wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez) go straight when they discover they are going to be starting a family. He eventually lands the janitor job at Frito-Lay where he is more interested in the machines, production line, and new ideas than in his maintenance work. With encouragement from Judy and a video message from Frito-Lay executive Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), he concocts the Flamin’ Hot flavor to appeal to the Latino market and save the struggling snack manufacturer. He successfully pitches his concept to Enrico, who puts Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into production. The rest is legend.

The story is based on Montañez’s book A Boy, A Burrito and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive. He has also retold this tall tale in his public speaking. Motivational speakers, often charismatic and animated individuals, seek to motivate people, usually to provoke their audience into positive actions. It’s not hard to see how hyperbole and embellishments become part of the guru game. The script is a tad bit busy, but Flamin’ Hot depicts Montañez’s whopper in an amusing and crowd-pleasing manner.

Does this film do a disservice to the actual inventor of the Flamin’ Hot concept? Perhaps so. The L.A. Times points to Lynne Greenfield as having invented Flamin’ Hot in 1989 as a young Frito-Lay employee out of graduate school. A film about how she navigated college and developed a successful brand in the 1980s, a time when women were becoming more accepted in the corporate workplace, could also make for inspiring entertainment. Perhaps her biopic should include a scene where she reacts to a colleague of hers taking credit for her creation. A film like that could be empowering to young women, but perhaps it would not be as spicy as Montañez’s version of events. On its face, as a tale about how hard work, dedication, and creativity can be pathways to success, Flamin’ Hot gives audiences lots to munch on. However, the film’s looseness with facts may leave a strange aftertaste with some in the audience.