OCEAN CITY This Fourth of July weekend began on a somber note for the Eastern Shore with Friday morning's death of Phillips Seafood patriarch Brice Phillips Sr.
"It is with great sadness that Phillips Seafood conveys the passing of Brice Phillip Sr. at the age of 90, on Friday, July 1, 2011," read a press release issued Friday afternoon from Phillips Foods and Seafood Restaurants. "As his family mourns his passing, so too will the thousands of lives he touched through his leadership of Phillips Seafood Restaurants."
Mr. Phillips was born on Hooper's Island in 1921, a grandson of Capt. Augustus Elsworth Phillips Sr., who started a crab-packing plant on the island around 1914. It remains in operation there today, one of the suppliers for the Phillips Seafood empire that currently includes nine full-service restaurants (three in Ocean City, the rest scattered along the Eastern seaboard, from Atlantic City to Myrtle Beach); more than a dozen express seafood restaurants, including seven at airports from Boston to Atlanta, and a food processing business producing frozen crab products for sale in supermarkets nationwide.
In 1956, Mr. Phillips and his wife, Shirley, opened the first Phillips crab house in Ocean City, trying to find a better way to sell hard crabs.
In the early 1950s, according to the book "Empire of the Crab, The Phillips Odyssey," written by Dale Cathell in 2006, watermen saw that steamed crabs were going for a good price in Baltimore and other waterfront towns. These "basket" crabs could go for a higher price.
But when seafood packers like Phillips filled orders for truckloads of live Jimmy crabs, they often found their cargoes rejected upon delivery at Baltimore restaurants, which had accepted a better deal from another seafood packer.
Looking for another way to sell their crabs, the Phillips decided to market directly to the public. After considering a crab house in Baltimore, they decided they didn't want to take their two sons to live in a city for the summer. But Ocean City in the mid 1950s was an appealing place for their offspring.
The property the Phillips purchased at 21st Street and Philadelphia Avenue remains their flagship operation in Ocean City.
Through the years, the Phillips family employed hundreds of young people in Ocean City, providing lodging in carefully monitored bunkhouses for their restaurant staff. In the process, they helped with the financing of many college educations.
Their first four waitresses were all teen-aged girls from the island, including two of Shirley Flowers Phillips' first cousins, Joyce and Judy Flowers (Judy Flowers Gootee today).
"It was really fun," Joyce Flowers recalled during a 2009 celebration of the Phillips' accomplishments held at Old Salty's restaurant on Hooper's Island. She said they lived in very basic (and crowded) conditions in a small residential area created in the crab house. They couldn't complain, since Mr. and Mrs. Phillips and their children shared the same quarters.
In those early days, Flowers said, the Phillips Crab House was at the end of Ocean City's commercial strip. Up to 33rd Street, she said, there were scattered beach houses. Then it was nothing but sand dunes to the Delaware line.
Another cousin, the late Tom Flowers, and his wife, the late Frances Flowers, were tapped by the Phillipses to cook at their new restaurant, since Dr. Flowers, who would go on to serve as a Dorchester County Commissioner, was a school teacher with summers off.
Today the Flowers' son, Dean, is comptroller for Phillips Seafood at its headquarters in Baltimore.
Through the years, the Phillips made friends wherever they located a restaurant, including Washington, D.C., where their friends include U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and in Baltimore, where Mayor and then Gov. William Donald Schaefer considered Mr. Phillips such a good friend that he remembered him in his last will and testament and honored him with the only sentence-length tribute, which read, "He is one of the nicest men I have ever met."
According to Jay Newcomb, manager of the Phillips' crab plant at Fishing Creek, Schaefer often visited the Phillips at their home on Hoopers Island and enjoyed fishing with Mr. Phillips on the charter boat of Capt. Ben Parks.
Mr. Phillips is survived by his childhood girlfriend and wife of 68 years, the former Shirley Flowers; sons Stephen and Jeffrey; daughters-in-law Maxine and Janet,; eight grandchildren; four great grandchildren as well as many other relatives and friends.
"His life will be celebrated by those who knew him best and the many whose lives he touched when they dined in his restaurants or worked for this great man," said Phillips spokeswoman Honey Konicoff.
Among those who paid tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Phillips during the August 2009 celebration in Dorchester County was Maryland Sen. Richard Colburn, who presented a resolution from the Maryland Senate to honor "two outstanding entrepreneurs who have always given back to the community."
Colburn also credited Brice Phillips for introducing people throughout the East Coast to seafood as it is done in Dorchester County.
"When anybody talks about crabs," Colburn said, "they think of Phillips' crabs."