PepsiCo Defends Richard Montañez, Claims Earlier Statements Were ‘Misconstrued’

PepsiCo issued a lengthy new statement on the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos controversy on Friday, in which the company expressed support for Richard Montañez, the former Frito-Lay executive whose claims to have invented the snack were debunked by the Los Angeles Times.

The new statement comes as Eva Longoria is preparing to direct “Flamin’ Hot,” a biopic based on Montañez’s life, which is set to go into production this summer. The movie tells the inspiring story of a Frito-Lay janitor whose bold idea for a spicy snack took the world by storm.

The Times’ report concluded that Montañez worked on other products in the “Flamin’ Hot” line, but that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were actually invented years before by a separate team. The screenwriter of “Flamin’ Hot,” Lewis Colick, argued earlier in the week that “enough” of Montañez’s story was true, though he acknowledged that it might not be entirely faithful to the facts.

“We’re not in the documentary business,” Colick told Variety.

For PepsiCo, the controversy complicates a feel-good story that highlighted the company’s outreach to the Latino market. In the new statement, the company said that the issue has caused “a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montañez and the Latino community.”

The new statement did not challenge any of the facts unearthed in the Times’ investigation, but it did argue that some of the company’s earlier comments on the issue had been “misconstrued.”

The company had told the Times that Montañez’s claim to have invented the snack was an “urban legend.” The company also said that it did “not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products to him.”

In the new statement, the company said it attributes the launch “and success” of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos “and other products” to several people, including Montañez.

“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,” the company said.

Jeff Bercovici, deputy business editor at the Times, said on Twitter that the new statement “affirms our reporting.”

“PepsiCo’s new statement heralds Montañez for ‘taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand,’” Bercovici wrote. “Our story reported on his product ideas, including Flamin’ Hot Popcorn and the Sabrositas line, both pitched after Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were trademarked.”

“The Times has been in contact with Frito-Lay since the article’s publication,” Bercovici continued. “Frito-Lay has not raised any issues with our reporting or sought a correction or clarification.”

The new PepsiCo statement also indicated that the company “can’t draw a clear link” between Montañez’s team and the separate group that was responsible for introducing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

The statement appears largely aimed at patching up the relationship with Montañez, who has served as a valuable brand ambassador in books and motivational speeches.

In an interview with Variety on Sunday, Montañez expressed chagrin at the way he was treated by the company in the Times story.

“I was their greatest ambassador,” he said. “But I will say this, you’re going to love your company more than they will ever love you, keep that in perspective.”

Read PepsiCo’s new statement below.

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 sincere truth is, at PepsiCo, we believe in the strength and power of teams, and we attribute 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. 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.

We also know 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. 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.

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.

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