Brice R. Phillips, the patriarch of a Maryland seafood empire that began 55 years ago with a simple crab shack in Ocean City/, died Friday at his home in the seaside resort town.
Mr. Phillips, who was 90, had been in declining health. The cause of death has not yet been determined.
The family business now includes 19 Phillips restaurants, along with a line of retail products sold under the Phillips Seafood name and seafood products for the food service industry.
Mr. Phillips, who co-founded the restaurant business with his wife of 68 years, Shirley, remained closely associated with the company even after handing day-to-day responsibilities to a son, Stephen B. Phillips of Annapolis, in the mid-1990s.
Until last year, Mr. Phillips regularly went to his Ocean City office to review nightly sales reports, said John Knorr, senior vice president of Phillips Foods and Seafood Restaurants. "He was our business guy," Mr. Knorr said. "Shirley was all about the food and hospitality. Brice was steering the ship."
The family's decision three decades ago to take a chance on the fledgling Harborplace waterfront mall in Baltimore paid off in a huge way, catapulting Phillips into the ranks of the highest-earning restaurants in the United States.
Last month, the company announced plans to close its sprawling restaurant and companion outlets in Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion. Phillips may remain in the Inner Harbor and open a restaurant in the site of the former ESPN Zone restaurant in the Power Plant complex.
Mr. Phillips, who had kept a low public profile in recent years, landed in the news in May after the release of William Donald Schaefer's will. The former mayor and governor, who died in April, left Mr. Phillips $2,500 and, in the will's only such tribute, called him "one of the nicest men I have ever met."
Mr. Knorr said Mr. Phillips considered Mr. Schaefer his best friend, and he said the two enjoyed sitting on the boardwalk in Ocean City watching beach-goers walk past.
Mr. Phillips grew up on Hoopers Island, an isolated community of watermen on a marshy stretch of land in Dorchester County between the Chesapeake Bay and the Honga River. It was there that he met his childhood girlfriend and future wife, Shirley Flowers, the daughter of a pleasure-boat captain.
He graduated from Hoopers Island High School and Strayer's Business College in Baltimore. From 1940 to 1943, he worked at Bethlehem Steel before joining the Army, where he served in the 66th Infantry Division.
In 1956, the Phillipses opened Phillips Crab House, a small carryout on 21st Street in Ocean City with four tables.
Building a seafood empire was the last thing on their mind. The shack, specializing in steamed crabs, offered the couple a place to sell surplus crabs from the family's Hoopers Island processing plant, A.E. Phillips & Son, started by his grandfather. Both their mothers helped out in the kitchen in Ocean City, according to a 1982 Baltimore Sun article, churning out crab cakes, crab imperial and soft crabs, in addition to steamed hard crabs.
"It kind of grew," Mr. Phillips told The Sun in 1982. That was an understatement. For 12 consecutive years, a new dining room was added annually to the original structure. Over time, seating capacity grew to 1,400 and the staff to more than 400. It now has more than 1,600 seats and occupies the entire block, Mr. Knorr said.
The company found great success after opening the Harborplace outpost in 1980 as an original tenant. But Brice and Shirley Phillips were initially skeptical about a Baltimore venture. Mr. Schaefer, who was then mayor, made a personal appeal to them, and his successful persuasion was a "great coup," in the words of M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
By 1981, Phillips' Harborplace eatery was among the nation's top-selling restaurants, serving more than $13 million of crab imperial, raw oysters and fried clams to several thousand customers a day. Only New York City's famous Tavern on the Green and the restaurant atop the World Trade Center, Windows on the World, did more business.
Phillips' Maryland-style crab cakes, made with crab imported from Asia, can be found in seven airports from Atlanta to Boston.
This week, Phillips, now with headquarters in Locust Point, opened its 19th outlet, at Newark Liberty International Airport. The company has three of the 100 top-grossing restaurants in the country, Mr. Knorr said.
Mr. Phillips was the recipient of numerous awards over the years, including 2008 Citizen of the Year from the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and Restaurateur of the Year from the Restaurant Association of Maryland. He received honorary degrees from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Baltimore International College.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, 40th Street and Coastal Highway in Ocean City. Friends may call from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Burbage Funeral Home, 108 William St., Berlin. Entombment will be private for the family.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by another son, Jeffrey P. Phillips Sr. of Ocean City; a sister, Jane Phillips Groff; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun