OCEAN CITY — Maryland lost an icon this week when Shirley Elizabeth Phillips, matriarch of the eponymous family seafood company, passed away on Christmas day at the age of 95.
Shirley Phillips and her late husband Brice, who passed away in 2011, were Ocean City’s first family in many respects, and while they traveled and ran the vast Phillips Seafood empire over the years, they always remained close to their Ocean City roots. Born on Hooper’s Island, Shirley Phillips married her husband Brice in 1942. Brice Phillips worked at his family’s business, A.H. Phillips and Son, a processing plant for crabs, fish and oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1956, Shirley and Brice Phillips created a small steamed crab carryout business at 21st Street in Ocean City which has blossomed over the several decades since as the iconic Phillips Crab House and cornerstone of the family seafood empire. Their two young sons, Stephen and Jeffrey, grew up in the original restaurant. From that modest beginning over 60 years ago, the facility on 21st Street grew slowly at first to a restaurant with 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 employees thousands. Generations of “Phillips boys and girls” went through the Phillips experience over the last 60 years, many taking with them the life lessons handed down from the family matriarch. 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 dishes and a sometimes unreliable local source for the crustacean, the Phillips family in the 1990s opened crab processing facilities in Southeast Asia and the company went global.
Throughout the growth of the Phillips empire over the decades, Shirley Phillips always returned to her roots in Ocean City and called the resort home for much of the year. Even after “retiring,” Shirley Phillips would come to the original restaurant in Ocean City and hostess or help out wherever she was needed. She loved people and enjoyed being on the floor at the original restaurant where she instilled the family credos of character, honesty and integrity into the legions of employees from the top level managers down to the last dishwasher. In a brief statement released this week, the Phillips company remembered her vast contributions.
“Our founder, Shirley Phillips, the heart and soul of our company, passed away early Christmas morning at the age of 95,” the statement reads. “She lived an extraordinary life and taught us all so much about leadership, loyalty, friendship and love. She will be greatly missed.”
State Senator Jim Mathias, former Ocean City mayor and councilman, this week recalled his longstanding relationship with Shirley Phillips from a personal and professional standpoint.
“Shirley Phillips is a legend and a true matriarch of Eastern Shore and Ocean City hospitality,” he said. “Shirley’s work ethic, business sense and positive, energetic attitude along with her lifelong love for Brice and family has been an inspiration to generations of people here in Ocean City, on the Eastern Shore and throughout Maryland.”
Mathias said Phillips touched the lives of all who came in contact with her from young, seasonal employees to state and national elected officials.
“From young folks seeking their first summer job in Ocean City fortunate to get hired at Phillips Crab House to local, state and national political and business leaders blessed to meet and work with her, Shirley’s hard work credo and can-do attitude inspired their successes while significantly contributing to Ocean City becoming a world class resort and leader in the tourism and hospitality industry,” Mathias said.
On behalf of the town of Ocean City, Communications Manager Jessica Waters said this week Shirley and the Phillips family were pillars of the resort community.
“When you think of the history of Ocean City and how the town has evolved, there are certain names and certain families who stand out as true founders of our success as a premier tourist destination,” she said. “The Phillips family, both Shirley and Brice, are the definition of Ocean City groundbreakers and part of the roots that built Ocean City.”
Waters echoed familiar sentiments about the Phillips family and their place in the history of the resort.
“They have a legacy in Ocean City that can never be re-written and there is no doubt when people think about Shirley Phillips, they will remember her for her hard work, her big smile, her friendly demeanor and her commitment to both their business and the town that they made their home, Ocean City.”
Always active in her community, Shirley Phillips gave much of her time to local and state organizations, serving on the Board of Directors for the Atlantic Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Maryland Chamber of Commerce, University of Maryland Medical Systems, and Board of Trustees for the Appellate Judicial Nominating Committee. She also received recognition for her work on the O.C. Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Committee.
Phillips’ contributions to the hospitality industry were also well-documented. She received a Doctor of Hospitality from University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Doctor of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management from Baltimore International College, and was listed as Maryland’s top 100 Women in Warfield Business Record. The Restaurant Association of Maryland each year honors a restaurant in the state with the annual Brice and Shirley Phillips Lifetime Achievement Award.
Shirley Phillips was a member of the Atlantic Methodist Church, the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, the Library of Congress Madison Council, RAM, and the Dunes Club. She was a member and benefactor of the Ocean City Lifesaving Museum and the Art League of Ocean City. Phillips and her late husband were active fundraisers for the Atlantic Methodist Church and hosted an annual community dinner each fall for years. She was also active in the establishment of Atlantic General Hospital.
A visitation will be held at the family home on Teal Drive on Saturday at noon, followed by services at 1:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory can be made to Atlantic General Hospital, 9733 Healthway Drive, Berlin, Md. 21811; Atlantic United Methodist Church, 105 4th Street, Ocean City, Md., 21842, or Coastal Hospice, P.O. Box 1733, Salisbury, Md. 21804.