The truth about hot Cheetos is not in ‘flamin’ hot’

The truth about hot Cheetos is not in ‘flamin’ hot’
(Photo: Twitter)
Like Oscar Isaac, I occasionally use chopsticks to eat hot Cheetos, a technique that keeps their red dust from sticking to my fingers.

It is the neatest way to keep pace with a perfectly engineered snack, designed both to satisfy the desire for its prickly heat, violent crunch, and convincing tang. With its mellow sweetness, there’s an immediate need to fuel and revisit it. اضافة اعلان

There are films this year celebrating (and satirizing) the invention of all kinds of consumer products, including the BlackBerry, Air Jordans, and Tetris, but I never imagined that this spicy little snack produced by a multinational corporation could be the hero of a late-capitalist uplift saga.

A dream leads up a billion-dollar idea
“Flamin’ Hot,” directed by Eva Longoria and streaming now on Hulu and Disney+, is a frothy, optimistic, very American film about Richard Montañez, a Mexican American kid from San Bernardino County who grows up to work at a Frito-Lay plant and dreams up a billion-dollar idea: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Through Montañez, the rise of the fingertip-staining, habit-forming, spicy corn-based snack becomes a story of the American dream — a ’90s-style janitor-to-executive tale fueled by pure grit and guts.

Is it Montañez’s biopic, or the snacks?
In the film, there’s no difference, and success is a blurry, feverish longing.

Montañez imagines his personal triumph as tangled up with the products, and seems convinced that corporate approval of hot Cheetos will somehow translate to respect and representation for working-class Mexican Americans. If that all seems a bit too tidy, a bit too good to be true, well, it is.

The debunking of
“Flamin’ Hot” was adapted from the memoir-ish self-help book of the real-life Richard Montañez. (One example of its guidance: “You can start your journey by putting your hunger to work for you so you can move past your fears.”). Though Montañez did work his way up from janitor to marketing executive at Frito-Lay, a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2021 thoroughly debunked the story of his inventing hot Cheetos.

In fact, in the late 1980s, Frito-Lay was losing on small-bag snack sales and getting desperate. Testing a spicy flavor line was a coordinated corporate strategy, and hot Cheetos were first released to the company’s test markets in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston, not Southern California, where the film is set.

Montañez’s version was admittedly way more fun than the truth, but adapting it was also an opportunity to revise, reshape, and ultimately align the story of hot Cheetos with consumers.

In the film, getting ready for his pitch to the executives, he practices his lines with a co-worker at the factory: “The Hispanic market will not be ignored!” But in the big meeting, he softens, admitting both his strategy and his vulnerability: “I want to know that I matter to you, to this company, to the world.”

A snack can do all that?
Hot Cheetos are great, but I don’t know — does anyone think a snack can do all that? Gushers can tweet about #BlackLivesMatter, M&M’s green mascot can switch from heels to flats, and Skittles can print new packaging for Pride, but we all know that gestures from food brands tend to be hollow.

In “Flamin’ Hot,” PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico gives away the game: “You still think I’m investing in a janitor?” he says. “The Hispanic market is the future and this man is going to lead us there.”

It sounds like a betrayal, but it is not. It’s exactly what Montañez, who would later become known as the “godfather of Hispanic marketing,” has been fighting for from the start — not for people, but for consumers — and the film exalts it.

A murky and heartbreaking impulse drives Montañez from the start of the film, when he realizes that the elementary school bullies making fun of his lunch actually kind of like it. He starts charging them 25 cents per foil-wrapped bean burrito, converting his humiliation into cold, hard cash. Maybe he can’t get his haters to like him, but at least they like his food.

Later, at the Frito-Lay factory, Montañez and his co-workers “fight” corporate, which refuses to invest in marketing hot Cheetos properly, setting up the product — and by extension, Montañez and his crew — to fail. They find their own ingenious, dodgy ways to get the product off the shelves in Rancho Cucamonga. And Enrico, ultimately impressed by the numbers, calls Montañez to say he’d like the factory to produce 5 million cases.

The demand for more hot Cheetos is framed as our hero’s great victory, but the terms of the battle are a little flimsy, and its setup is insincere. Let’s rewind: Factory workers faced up against corporate suits to … do what exactly? To help those suits. To help Frito-Lay claim the Hispanic market in Southern California and to make the company more money.

Though that isn’t how things went down, the Flamin’ Hot flavor line is in fact a wild success story tied to its fans, who constantly expand on the brand’s reach with viral recipes including hot Cheetos salads, elotes, and fried chicken, until the dishes become canon.

In an interview, Longoria emphasized the sense of collective ownership over the snack: “I like to say, this isn’t PepsiCo’s product, this is our product. The Hispanic community made this product popular; we made it a pop-culture phenomenon.”

Much like the “Flamin’ Hot” origin story, that is not entirely true. Though the film romanticizes labor on the production line, factories that produce hot Cheetos also employ underage migrant workers, mostly from Central America, whose lungs sting from all the spicy dust in the air. The billion-dollar brand belongs totally and patently to PepsiCo, not the people who buy or make the snacks.

How brands wish we would see them
What “Flamin’ Hot” does get right, in a glossy fictional origin story, is showing us exactly how food brands wish we would see them — wholesome, harmless, and completely essential to our lives, their wins and successes so tangled up with our own, it is impossible to tell the difference.

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