Mike Critchfield has cut a lot of meat for a guy who never planned to be a butcher. Now, after 50 years as the retail butcher at Critchfield’s Meats, he will pass the knife to his nephew after Saturday.
Amos and Opal Critchfield founded the family business in 1969. and Mike began working there when he was 16.
It was during the Vietnam War, his two older brothers Larry and Harold were in the Navy, and little brother Mark was too young.
“I was the only one left to help,” Critchfield said. “So I got elected.”
He was an athlete and wanted to pursue that.
“The one thing I knew I didn’t want to do was be a meat cutter all my life,” Critchfield said. “But I love it. I love every bit of it.”
What changed his mind? The customers.
“I love waiting on people,” he said.
When he first started out, he’d ask if he could help someone and most would rather wait for his dad. Now, he’s the one who the customers want.
“I’ll miss my customers, being able to talk with them,” he said.
Now they will have to get used to the “the new guy,” his nephew Anthony Critchfield, who has been working there a mere 23 years.
Mike Critchfield said that they often know exactly what long-time customers want before they ask.
“Critchfield’s has been know for our quality, so it’s easy to sell something you feel confident in,” he said.
Besides grass-fed, grain-finished beef from a family farm in Iowa, they have pork from farmers in Northern Kentucky, and chicken from Kentucky, too. They have also year-old cured country ham and turkeys.
“For some reason, people have always associated us with the holidays, but the people that really know come to us all the time,” Critchfield said. “We do hamburger, ground pork, we make our own sausages. We have a deli, cakes, pies, pimento cheese, and more.”
Over the years, he’s seen things change as the American diet has shifted.
“There are a lot of changes going on right now. The consumer is more educated, they like to know where the meats are coming from, what it’s fed. They are more health conscious, and more familiar with different cuts,” he said. “They really know what they want more than ever.”
Lots of things that used to be hard to convince shoppers to buy are hot items these days. Flank steak, for instance. “When I first started cutting meat, you couldn’t give that away,” he said. Now flank, short ribs and brisket are popular and very expensive cuts.
Likewise chicken wings and the now-ubiquitous boneless breast.
His first encounter with boneless chicken breasts was an order he received for the visit by Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, the Kentucky Derby in 1974, Critchfield said. “We had to de-bone 600 chicken breasts ... I’d never heard of it. It took forever. It was neat ... but that was so time-consuming. That was a learning experience.”
Now he can practically de-bone a chicken breast in his sleep.
He’s been letting his customers know when they come in that Saturday will be his last day working in the store at Zandale Shopping Center on Nicholasville Road. But the Critchfield business is in safe hands, he said.
“My nephew, Anthony, is going to take over for meat at the retail store, and my younger brother Mark will keep running the wholesale plant,’ he said. Working the cash register is another nephew, Nicholas. “We don’t know what he’s going to be yet.”