Wyoming’s Own Red Pony Salsa Is Author Craig Johnson’s Favorite And Growing Fast

Clearmont gardener Richard Rhoades' Red Pony Salsa is about to go big time. He’s one of only two Wyoming producers invited to the Winter Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas, where thousands of retailers go to look for their next bestseller.

Renée Jean

December 30, 20237 min read

Wyoming grown and made Red Pony Salsa is at the Winter Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas. It's the recipe of Richard Rhoades, far left, and the favorite salsa of Wyoming author Craig Johnson.
Wyoming grown and made Red Pony Salsa is at the Winter Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas. It's the recipe of Richard Rhoades, far left, and the favorite salsa of Wyoming author Craig Johnson. (Courtesy Richard Rhoades)

A sprawling garden with dozens of tomato and pepper plants will ensure a gardener doesn’t go without fresh produce for the summer.

But it also ensures, if all of the plants happen do well, an astounding amount all at once.

What’s a gardener who hates to waste so much as an apple peel to do?

In Clearmont gardener Richard Rhoades’ case, he started playing around with salsa recipes in his home kitchen, canning up jar after jar of a special homestyle recipe year after year.

“I don’t know how many years it took to come up with what I’ve got now,” he said. “Several, actually.”

What he has now is a homestyle recipe that’s about to hit the big time. Rhoades is taking his salsa, now branded Red Pony Salsa and happens to be a favorite with Wyoming’s famous Longmire author Craig Johnson, to Las Vegas. He’s one of two Wyoming producers selected to be part of the Winter Fancy Food Show, where thousands of retailers from across America go to shop for their next bestseller.

“I really have no idea what to expect,” Rhoades told Cowboy State Daily. “But the possibilities are endless, I believe. Because the show is pretty much open strictly to (retail) buyers, right. It’s not open to the general public.”

Rhoades has been told there can be 30,000 or more retailers shopping at the event for their next bestsellers. The Winter Fancy Food show, meanwhile, advertises at least 17,000 such buyers, all in one place.

“I think at least one person would want my stuff,” Rhoades said.

The Longmire Connection

Red Pony Salsa may seem a bit familiar to fans of Wyoming author Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, set in Wyoming in the fictional county of Absaroka.

It’s familiar because it’s actually named after the Red Pony Bar and Grill, owned by Walt Longmire’s good friend Henry Standing Bear. The salsa jars even use the same logo as Longmire Red Pony merchandise, which is available at the Longmire Store in Buffalo, as well as at Johnson’s online store.

“I’ve known Craig for 30 years,” Rhoades told Cowboy State Daily. “After I did up a bunch of salsa, I would take him down some jars, and he absolutely loved it. He kept telling me every year that I needed to do this commercially.”

Rhoades always appreciated the compliment, of course, but commercial production of his garden-fresh salsa seemed like a leap. Not just of faith, but a death-defying Evel Knievel leap over a giant chasm of unknowns.

“It took him roughly 12 years to convince me, and that’s basically how it started out,” Rhoades said. “It was just taking produce out of my garden and playing with it. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, so that’s kind of a natural thing to do.”

Making a commercial product, however, is a decidedly unnatural thing to do. First, one has to find an FDA-approved expert to create the nutrition label and test its shelf life. That alone took Rhoades awhile to figure out, much less finding what’s called a copacker to make his recipe commercially and bottle it up in jars.

Before the copacker could go to work, Rhoades needed a design for his label, and a name. That was a stumbling block for a while. He just wasn’t sure what to call it.

“I was having coffee with Craig one morning and him and Judy said, ‘Why don’t you just use the Red Pony?’” he said.

And just like that, Rhoades’ salsa became part of the Longmire family. It’s even sold at the Longmire Store in Buffalo, as well as at select other venues across Wyoming, and in some surrounding states.

Red Pony Salsa
Red Pony Salsa (Courtesy Richard Rhoades)

Meet The Inspiration Of The Omar Rhoades Character

In the Longmire series, Omar Rhoades is a wealthy eccentric and a firearms expert. He loves to hunt and fish and has a bulletproof SUV — mighty handy if one is likely to get shot at whenever a certain author has a mind to make that happen.

Johnson has a habit of including people he knows in his books, and Rhoades is the basis for Omar’s character.

The real Rhoades was a taxidermist and an outfitter when he met Johnson 30-some years ago. He’s been outfitting hunters in Wyoming since the 1980s, and his personal hunts have taken him all over the world — Europe, Africa, Canada, Alaska, Mexico and several U.S. states. There’s a photo of Johnson and Rhoades on one of those hunting trips in Belize on Rhoades’ website for Red Pony Salsa.

“Johnson was in the process of building this cabin,” Rhoades recalled. “In the meantime, while they were doing that, he was basically living on about six pallets with a tarp over the top for a roof. It was him, and his dog.”

Rhoades had a camper that he only used during hunting season, so he offered the camper to Johnson, and the two became fast friends right off the bat.

“He stayed in that until he got his house finished,” Rhoades said. “And we used to go up to the mountain for a week or a long weekend or whatever and just go up and relax and fish and kind of shoot the bull.”

What’s Next For Red Pony Salsa

Rhoades has already created one spin-off product from his salsa, a bloody mary mix whose inspiration was all the excess tomato juice he had to drain from his salsa so that it wouldn’t be too runny.

Now he’s working on a third product that came about because he had 38 pounds of extra peppers hanging around the kitchen.

“I did what they call basically a cowboy candy,” Rhoades said. “And everybody seems to like that pretty well, and then Marilee, my better half, suggested I maybe look at doing that, so I actually did up a batch last night.”

For this dish Rhoades is chopping his jalapeños up more like a relish than slices so it’s easier to spread on a cracker with cream cheese.

“That would be great with a brat or a hotdog or whatever,” Rhoades said.

Having been through the process before with his salsa, Rhoades doesn’t need to wait 12 years anymore when he’s got a new idea from his kitchen experiments.

He’s going full speed ahead, and he’s even helping out his son, who is a chef, with the same process for a spice mix his son created.

The cowboy candy, meanwhile, has already been taste-tested — and approved — by Johnson and his wife, Rhoades said.

“He was down here the other night after the Christmas reading in Clearmont,” Rhoades said. “And they pretty much finished off one jar.”

From his garden to the huge Winter Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas, Richard Rhoades' journey with his Red Pony Salsa.
From his garden to the huge Winter Fancy Food Show in Las Vegas, Richard Rhoades' journey with his Red Pony Salsa. (Courtesy Richard Rhoades)

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter