OCEAN CITY — Ocean City and the entire Eastern Shore and beyond lost an icon last week when Brice Reginald Phillips, patriarch of the eponymous family restaurant chain and seafood industry, passed away at his resort home at the age of 90.
Phillips’ life was celebrated with a memorial service on Wednesday at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center attended by hundreds, from state and local dignitaries to family and friends to the legion of former employees, the “Phillips boys and girls” as they were referred to at different times during the ceremony. Countless young men and women went through the Phillips experience over the last 50 years or so, many taking with them the life lessons handed down from the family patriarch, Brice Phillips, in their later endeavors.
Brice’s sons, Jeffrey and Stephen, spoke briefly during the ceremony and recalled the benchmarks their father instilled in them and the entire Phillips family from the top managers of the ever-expanding empire down to the last dishwasher.
“Jeffrey and I are very proud to be the sons of Brice Phillips,” he said. “There are several words that are very important to the Phillips’ family — character, honesty, integrity — those words mean a whole lot to Brice and our entire Phillips family.”
Brice and Shirley Phillips were Ocean City’s first family, and while they traveled and ran the vast operation over the years, they always remained close to their Ocean City roots. Phillips passed away last Friday at his Mallard Island home, a fitting end to a life that started on Hooper’s Island and blossomed in the resort.
“Brice and Shirley need no further explanation in this community,” said retired Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Dale Cathell, who eulogized Phillips on Wednesday and wrote a novel about them. “They always returned to Ocean City. They also went back to Hooper’s Island where the dream began and back to the island of Ocean City where the dream became reality.”
Phillips moved to Ocean City with his wife Shirley and his two young boys in 1956 to open a small steamed crab carryout business that eventually blossomed into one of the most successful restaurant chains and seafood processing businesses in the world.
Phillips was born and raised on tiny Hooper’s Island along the Chesapeake in Dorchester County and worked in his grandfather’s crab processing plant, A.E. Phillips and Son, while growing up. He met his childhood sweetheart, Shirley Flowers, on Hooper’s Island and the couple eventually married and started a family.
The Phillips opened the small steamed crab carryout restaurant on the corner of 21st Street and Philadelphia Ave. as a means to sell excess crab from the family’s Hooper’s Island packing plant. From that modest beginning, the facility on 21st Street grew slowly at first to a restaurant of a few tables with Shirley cooking the now famous crab cakes and Brice steaming pot after pot of steamed crabs.
Today, the original location occupies an entire city block in Ocean City and employs thousands. The Phillips later opened two more restaurants in Ocean City and made their first foray out of the resort area in the 1980s when the family opened what later became the centerpiece of Harborplace in Baltimore. The Phillips empire now includes locations in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Myrtle Beach, Norfolk, West Palm Beach and several other locations in between.
With a menu driven by crab and a shaky, if not unreliable, local source for the crustacean, the Phillips family in the 1990s opened crab-processing facilities in Southeast Asia and the company went global.
“What a life we celebrate today,” said Cathell on Wednesday. “He was a risk taker. He took the business from Hooper’s Island to Ocean City to eventually the world.”
Nonetheless, Brice and Shirley always returned to their roots on Hooper’s Island and in Ocean City, where they lived much of the year. As the family business grew and went regional, then national and finally global, the standards never changed. Brice and Shirley, and later Steve Phillips and the top managers in the company, many of whom have been part of the team for decades, never lost sight of their humble origins. Over the years, nameless, faceless employees became family members. Many moved up the ranks, while others took some small part of their Phillips experience with them in later endeavors.
“We’ve had a lot of wonderful people come through our family over the last 50 years or so,” said Steve Phillips on Wednesday. “This was our whole life.”
Paul Wall was a Snow Hill schoolteacher who went to Phillips looking for a summer job when the family first opened the steamed crab carryout in Ocean City. Brice Phillips hired Wall to do the payroll for the suddenly growing business, and Wall eventually became general manager at the original location, a position he held for decades. Wall fondly recalled those early days during a eulogy on Wednesday and said what an indelible mark Brice and the Phillips family left on the community.
“What a name and what a man,” he said. “We don’t find too many people like this in life. They lived their dream and they lived it day in and day out. They loved hospitality and it shined through in everything they did.”
Wall recalled the hectic summer days when Brice Phillips would take laps around the cavernous restaurant making sure every detail was attended to.
“He’d have that cigar going and that twinkle in his eye and would walk through and say ‘keep up the good work’,” he said. “He worked hard and he expected people to work hard also.”
That attention to detail was what made Brice and the entire Phillips operation so successful.
“He didn’t take anything for granted,” he said. “He spent hours and hours in his office going over things.”
As meticulous as Brice Phillips was about the family business, he always made time for his philanthropic endeavors. Phillips served on numerous local boards and commissions and his generosity was legendary.
“A man is known by the deeds he does and the company he keeps,” said Cathell on Wednesday. “Brice has always been a giving man. He was always there for the less fortunate. What a giving man and family he was and they are.”
While the ceremony on Wednesday was treated with the solemnity the occasion deserved, it was not without its moments of levity. Cathell recalled Brice Phillips’ relationship with then-Baltimore mayor and later Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer, who encouraged the Phillips family to open the centerpiece of his Harborplace renaissance project in the early 1980s.
“Governor Schaefer right now is probably talking Brice into putting a Phillips Restaurant at the Pearly Gates,” he said.
Cathell also pointed out the wide breadth of Phillips’ personal relationships.
“He was a friend to mayors and presidents and crab pickers and dish washers,” he said. “His business grew beyond even his wildest dreams.”
Cathell sent a personal message to his longtime friend at the closing of his eulogy.
“We will not soon see another man like Brice Phillips in the world,” he said. “I wish you a scotch or two on a rocker on a porch of whatever Boardwalk is there.”
Earlier in the week, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan praised Brice Phillips at the Mayor and Council meeting on Tuesday.
“We lost a very important member in our community last week when Brice Phillips past away,” he said. “Brice and Shirley Phillips were one of the most dynamic teams you will ever find anywhere.”
Meehan said the Phillips family were trailblazers and an important part of the core group of families that grew the resort from a sleepy fishing town to what becomes the second largest city in Maryland during the summer months.
“They came to Ocean City and established Phillips Crab House as a carry out back in the mid 1950’s and certainly were part of that generation in Ocean City that really helped this town develop and take it where it is today,” he said. “Phillips Crab House is synonymous with Ocean City, when you say Ocean City people say things like Phillips Crab House and all of us that have been here for a number of years know how many people we know that have worked there, that was like a little city in itself.”
Meehan also referenced Phillips’ impact on generations of young employees and his impact on the resort community.
“The friends of mine that worked there always had a great deal of respect and admiration for Brice,” he said. “A wonderful man certainly involved in so many things I can’t even begin to mention them and contributed so much to our community. He will certainly go down in history as one of the great men of Ocean City not only in the hospitality business but as a family man as well.”