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OCEAN CITY — For the past 22 years, Bull on the Beach owner Phil Houck has started his new year off the same way: by leading a growing crowd of people into the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, Houck is more a philanthropist than the pied piper, just like how the Penguin Swim has become perhaps the most significant one-day fundraiser for Atlantic General Hospital while growing into one of the resort’s most beloved annual traditions.
Houck sat down with The Dispatch this week to talk about his passion for the hospital, the changes in the resort and the restaurant industry and what continues to drive him to jump in the ocean each and every Jan. 1.
Q: Over the years, most folks have heard some version of the origin of the Penguin Swim, but talk about how much time goes into planning and fundraising for the event each year?
A: You know, if you go back to before the hospital was here, you had to get up late at night and drive to Salisbury if you had an emergency. It was really a burden, so when the hospital came here, it was really a true blessing. So, I wanted to jump on board and help with the hospital as much as we could. So, the first two years, we went up to the Carousel and we probably had six or eight swimmers and maybe raised $500 or not even $1,000.
Now, here we are 22 or 23 years later, and I think we’ve raised over $400,000 in that time. We started with six or eight swimmers and now we have over a hundred swimmers. Now, there are a lot of people should get credit for this, especially my son-in-law Tom Knopp, who actually started it, and we jumped on the bandwagon early on. What made it successful for us now is that it’s right here by the Princess Royale and now we have our own staff and we can handle a lot of stuff.
But, to get back to raising money, nowadays we always have a golf tournament, which is always the second week of October. My son-in-law, my daughter Michelle, and Marc, who works here, runs it. Then we have the Crab Feast/Bull Roast at Crab Alley for the past eight years run by Kelly, who is the GM there, and my sons Kevin and Phillip. But, really there is one unsung hero in all of this and that’s my office manager Theresa Goldberg, who is known as “Shue”. She does everything, and she makes my job very easy. I get all the praise, but it’s them that deserves the praise, and I always say that to them.
Q: So, essentially this started as an idea that you pursued on a whim that has turned into a year-round venture?
A: Yeah, we start planning our Penguin Swim sometime in February or March because we know that golf tournaments and fundraisers are coming up, and we have a lot of dedicated swimmers and customers who always participate.
Q: Let’s talk about your connection and how it’s grown over the years with Atlantic General Hospital. You mentioned that you wanted to be a part of the effort to help it grow when it came here. You now sit as the treasurer for the AGH Foundation and you have been a board member since 2005. Have you always been this passionate about AGH or has it been something that has increased incrementally over the years as you’ve become more involved?
A: I think it started for me back in the late ‘80’s when I was the president of Ocean City’s paramedic organization. I realized then, before I said I would be president, when I asked the paramedics what they wanted and they said, ‘Phil, it’s really a burden when we have to go to Annapolis every year to further our education. We want our own school here.’ So, we went to Peninsula hospital and we asked, ‘well, how do we do that?’
In two years, we had our own school here, and now we have one of the best schools in the state for paramedics. So, being with the paramedics and realizing how far Salisbury is if you have an emergency, when it was brought up that AGH was going to have a hospital here, I was like, ‘that’s a done deal. I’m going to help as much as I can.’
Q: Has the growth of this event even surprised you after all these years?
A: Yes and no. We aren’t just a good group of people, but at least the folks on our team become a family. If you look back 22 years, people had little kids that were just 1 or 2 years old, and now, those kids have grown up, and they are part of the swim team. It’s more of a family thing that keeps going back and back.
Q: You mention that family nature and that family feel of this place. There are a lot of places that are family businesses in Ocean City, but yours, it seems, everyone in your family, from your kids to your grandkids have either gotten into the family business or taken a turn at one time or another in the family business. Is learning how to operate the slicer for the famous open pit beef sandwiches a Houck family rite of passage?
A: Definitely. Back in those days, I self-taught everybody because I’m always hands on, and I’ve always done things my way. When you have the responsibility to pay all your bills, and take care of all your employees, you want to make sure things are done the way your philosophy says it should be done. I always say, every good employee needs a good employer, and every good employer needs good employees too, so it’s kind of hand in hand.
Q: While your approach to the way you run your business may not have changed, the (restaurant) industry has changed, and this resort has changed. Talk about how the Bull on the Beach has always tried to evolve in order to meet those changes in the restaurant industry?
A: I remember we first moved here in 1979. I actually packed my family up without them knowing and sold my house in Baltimore and moved here. I had a little restaurant in 1979 on Caroline Street called Sweet Caroline’s that I didn’t expect to go anywhere. Then I met a guy named Bill Connors, and I gave him my pitch about this everyday bull roast and oyster roast and he leased me a piece of ground between 2nd and 3rd streets. We opened up May 28, 1980, and from then on it became a philosophy to make sure things worked right, and it just really worked. I’m always an employer that appreciates good employees because if you don’t have good employees, you are nothing man … you ain’t gonna make it.
Q: As a business owner, how do you look at all the conditions in the restaurant industry that you can’t control like food costs, the economy, or changing consumer trends, and try and still get better every single year?
A: I think if you have a great product at a good and reasonable price. I always say we are like a three-legged stool. You got quality, friendliness and cleanliness. You need all three or the stool will fall over and that’s why some businesses close. But, to go back to the 80’s, I remember the day after Labor Day, it was a ghost town.
Q: Well, that’s a good point, because there has long been the argument whether or not Ocean City is becoming much more of a year-round resort or if it is still very close to that ‘100 Days of Summer’ that it used to be in the 80’s. What’s your take?
A: Well, the bulk of your income is still those 100 days, but nowadays, we are fortunate enough that September, October and November are still fairly decent. Then you have great weekends, and the Penguin Swim, which is a great day for us and then there’s the boat show in February. February and March are slow months, but the good weekends help you cut your losses. You don’t make much profit in the offseason, but you cut your losses and try to make sure you keep your people employed year-round.
Q: In recent years, we’ve seen a handful of longtime local business owners in town hang it up and call it a career. Yet, sitting here with you, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. You are still seven days a week in some capacity amongst all your businesses. In fact, you have just opened a new place, the Horn and Shell in West Ocean City. What continues to drive you?
A: Very simple answer: you either love it or you hate it, and if you hate it, you get out. But, I kind of really love what I do, because it gives me something to do, and gives me something to wake up for in the morning. I mean, what do you do if you are retired? You can only play so much golf and you can only do so much fishing. There are a lot of negatives if you don’t have anything to do, and I don’t even want to look at those negatives. So, I wake up, and I’m happy and I’m ready to go to work.
Q: So, the forecast for this year’s Penguin Swim is pretty mild compared to past years. But, let’s be honest, have there been any years where you were hesitant to put on the bathrobe and lead the charge into the ocean?
A: I could name you three or four times.
Q: What’s more important to you as far as your legacy in this town goes? What you’ve built here in this business at the Bull on the Beach, or what you have done so generously as a philanthropist in this community for Atlantic General Hospital.
A: That’s a tough question, because you have your family and you have other things you want to accomplish too. There’s that middle ground that you try to meet. You want to keep the family happy and make sure they are running good, and the restaurants are running good. But, you have to spend time to help out the other side of that and that’s Atlantic General Hospital, and other fundraisers I get into as well. But, Atlantic General Hospital is my cup of tea right now.