The Next Great Idea
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Red"
Originally featured on 06-04-2007
As part of our series "Checkered"

In hindsight, Frank Milcher’s “Find the Poison Cheeto” contest wasn’t a good idea. But, it could be argued, after Cheeto Cola (37 cans sold worldwide) and the Leaning Tower of Cheetos (12 injured, one still missing and presumed dead), it might actually have been his best idea.

Six months earlier Frank had been promoted to Head of Cheeto Operations for the Fritolay Company by the CEO (and Frank’s mentor), Mr. Fritolay himself. And although sales had never been better, Frank vowed to make a lot of new and exciting changes.

His first (and arguably most detested) act was to start phasing out Chester Cheetah, beloved Cheetos spokes-cheetah. In his internal memo and subsequent press release, Frank explained Cheetos had decided to move in another direction and that he didn’t think Chester was a good role model for kids, with his “wild conduct” and “lax attitude towards authority.”

“And,” he added, “I more than anyone would like to sell as much of our fine product as we can, but it’s obvious Chester has an addiction problem and that’s not the kind of behavior we want to encourage.” He also cited the decreased sales of other products like Trix and Cookie Crisp as further evidence that “animals, even of the cartoon variety, just don’t belong in the food industry.”

Which brings us to the poison Cheeto. Desperate for a new idea, Frank was working late one evening. After one too many rum and Cheeto Colas, he apparently sent an e-mail to the Marketing and Production Departments regarding his idea for a new contest, something that would “stir things up” and “get people talking.”

Frank later claimed it was only a joke gone awry and pointed to one part of the e-mail as proof. The prize for finding the Cheeto, he had written, was “a bag a day for 800 years.”

But, through an unlikely series of events involving a careless assistant to the vice president and a disgruntled factory worker, the poison Cheeto was immediately produced and put into a 13 ounce bag. Due to a problem with the bag manufacturers, only some of the bags had any information about the contest on them (or more importantly what to do if you found the Cheeto which was to under no circumstances touch it), and the woman who placed the poison Cheeto in the bag couldn’t remember if the bag was in fact marked or not; when questioned, she only vaguely recalled the Cheeto kind of being in the shape of a lower case “J.”

Two days later, while Frank was going over preliminary plans to change the color of Cheetos (to more of a reddish orange instead of an orangey red), he received an e-mail from Production telling him the contest was under way. As he instantly began an angry reply to find out what contest and who authorized it, memories of that evening suddenly started coming back to him.

For the first time in his long snack foods industry career, Frank didn’t know what to do. A recall was out of the question, the price alone would be astronomical, plus the bad publicity would hurt even more.

Looking to shift the blame, Frank called in a few favors and managed to get a representative for Brett Michaels on the phone. However, he was quickly informed that although they had recently reunited, the 80’s hair band Poison, wanted nothing to do with Cheetos or some “crazy contest.”

Finally, Frank decided the right thing to do, the only thing he could do, was tell Mr. Fritolay. He took the elevator up to the 35th floor and walked through the large double glass doors.

Mary Ann, Mr. Fritolay’s secretary, was on the phone and she nodded at Frank and pointed towards the door behind her. Frank took a deep breath and, after a quick knock, went into the office.

The thought of telling Mr. Fritolay bad news or disappointing him in any way made Frank sick; he loved Mr. Fritolay, practically like a father. He had given Frank his first job, had promoted him to regional manager and then district manager and then provincial manager, until he finally reached the big time. Plus, he had continued to support Frank even after numerous questionable decisions.

When Frank entered the office, he saw the back of the big leather chair and smiled; Mr. Fritolay certainly loved looking out onto his factory and the cool ranch-scented smoke rising from the tall smoke stacks.

“Sir, I hate to bother you but I’m afraid it’s rather important.”

The chair didn’t move and Frank walked towards the desk.

“If this is a bad time I could-“ He stopped suddenly when he saw Mr. Fritolay. At first Frank thought he was sleeping, but then he noticed his rather blue complexion. He grabbed the lapels of his suit and shook him.

“Mr. Fritolay! Are you alright?!”

That’s when he saw the bag. Under Mr. Fritolays’s right arm was a 13 ounce bag of Cheetos. Frank noticed orange crumbs around his pale lips. He stepped back quickly and hit his head the window. His yell brought Mary Ann running.

At the hospital, Frank bombarded the doctor with questions. “Poison? Was it the poison Cheeto?”

The confused-looking doctor assured him that Mr. Fritolay had no poison in his system and that his death was caused by a mild heart attack.

“Heart attack? But he was so healthy, he was so virile, so…”

“Old,” the doctor said. “He was 96. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

Frank slowly drove back to work. He was upset that his mentor had died but thankful he wasn’t responsible.

Just before he went into his office, he noticed several people in the many cubicles happily digging into bags of Cheetos. That’s when he remembered the poison Cheeto was still out there. He was about to say something but when he glanced up at the clock, he decided he just didn’t have the time; he really needed to get back to work and start thinking about his next great idea.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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