A Cut Above

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of WV Focus magazine.

The butcher block in Ralph Richmond’s shop is warped from years of use. The block was already old when Ralph inherited it from the original owner 38 years ago, and years of blood and knife cuts have left the surface looking like a three dimensional map of a West Virginia landscape. Ralph’s store, appropriately called The Butcher Block, is a lot like that maple slab. It shows its age, but that doesn’t detract from what it offers: reliability, with a solid dash of character.

Ralph grew up in Pluto, in Raleigh County, but moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s with his wife, Janet, looking for work. They both applied for jobs at the CIA. She landed a job as a secretary, but Ralph was turned down for a job as a courier because he failed the required physical due to high blood pressure. Instead, he went to work at a Giant supermarket, where he eventually ended up in the store’s butcher shop.

The Richmonds lived in Washington for five years, but like many ex-pats, they began looking for a way to move back home to West Virginia. They found a small brick grocery store, Henry’s Market, along U.S. Route 19 in Beaver. The owner was well into his seventies and looking to retire. Ralph now had several years of experience in grocery stores and figured he could run the store, so the couple purchased the business and renamed it The Butcher Block.

When Ralph first took over, the store was a full-service grocery store—the shelves were stocked with canned goods and groceries of all kinds, as well as animal feed, health and beauty products, and just about anything a family would need for daily life. But in the 38 years that have elapsed, drug stores, convenience stores, and big box stores have cropped up in the surrounding community, and shoppers no longer looked to small stores like The Butcher Block for their staples.

But Ralph knew his strengths and played to them. When people stopped buying their groceries at his store, he pivoted the business to focus on something chain stores could not offer: top-quality meat and intensely personalized service. While many grocery stores now stock their meat departments with precut, prepackaged meat, every single cut in The Butcher Block’s foggy glass case passes through Richmond’s hands. He’s the one who sharpens the knives to trim the fat off the pork chops. He’s the one who runs the meat grinder that turns beef shoulder into ground chuck. He wields the razor-sharp saw transforms a rib roast into prime rib.

If a customer doesn’t like what he’s got in the case, well, that’s fine too. Ralph is happy to do a custom order. Want your steak two inches thick? No problem. He usually keeps the meat-to-fat ratio in his ground chuck pretty lean, but one elderly customer preferred his ground with lots and lots of fat mixed in. “He liked it white,” Ralph says. Of course, the old fellow hasn’t been in the shop for a while. “I’d say his arteries clogged up.”

Ralph doesn’t advertise, outside of the occasional ad in the local high school football program. He doesn’t need to. “The best advertisement is word of mouth,” he says. His commitment to customer service has earned The Butcher Block a solid base of regulars. “People will come here and they won’t go anywhere else,” Janet says.

After returning from Washington, Janet spent 33 years as an elementary school teacher for Summers County Schools. When she retired recently she began working with Ralph in the store. They are The Butcher Block’s only employees, so when the couple have to go to doctors’ appointments or take vacations—as they do a few times each year—they just close the whole shop down. It might stay closed for a few hours or a whole week. But they don’t have to worry about losing customers. They always come running back.

Janet tells of one family who were so discontented with the quality of the supermarket meat they purchased during one of the Richmonds’ vacations, they just gave up on dinner and offered the leftovers to the family pet. “They said the dog wouldn’t hardly eat it.”

Word of mouth, indeed.