Shirley Elizabeth Phillips, co-founder and matriarch of the Phillips Seafood empire that stretched from Dorchester County to Southeast Asia, died Monday at a family home in Princess Anne. She was 95. No cause of death was available.
“She was a a fine lady, a working lady and an honest lady,” said former Ocean City Mayor Roland “Fish” Powell. “She did everything to promote Ocean City as a family resort — and she gave freely. She was one in a million.”
Phillips Seafood posted on its company Facebook page that Mrs. Phillips was “the heart and soul of our company…. She lived an extraordinary life and taught us all so much about leadership, loyalty, friendship and love.”
Born in the Hoopers Island community of Fishing Creek, she was the daughter of Ivy Burton Flowers, who worked on the Chesapeake Bay, and Lillie Melvina Aaron Flowers.
She met her future husband, Brice R. Phillips, at the local four-room school. His family had established a seafood packing house in 1914.
She was a 1939 graduate of Hoopers Island High School. In 1942 she married Mr. Phillips.
The couple moved to Ocean City as the resort town was growing after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened. It was also a time when crabs were plentiful and the Hoopers Island packing house had an oversupply.
“In 1956, the Phillipses opened Phillips Crab House, a small carryout on 21st Street with four tables,” said a 2011 article in The Sun.
“Building a seafood empire was the last thing on their mind,” the article said. “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 and churned out crab cakes, crab imperial and soft crabs, in addition to steamed hard crabs.”
In a 1990 Sun interview, Mrs. Phillips told about making a crab cake: "‘You have to be so careful when you're handling a crab cake.… It's almost like you're handling eggs," she said as she cupped her hands as if delicately, tenderly even, rolling an egg from palm to palm.”
Despite the growing success on the Eastern Shore, she and her husband were initially reluctant to establish a Baltimore restaurant at Harborplace. Then Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who had an Ocean City home, offered his personal encouragement. When the restaurant opened, Mrs. Phillips decorated it in a Victorian motif.
In 1990 The Sun noted that the Harborplace operation, opened in 1980, “ranks among the top five largest grossing restaurants in the country, hard behind such luminaries as the Rainbow Room and the Tavern on the Green in New York.”
In 1989, Phillips Harborplace grossed $15.8 million, according to an article in Restaurant and Institutions Magazine.
“The Phillipses have made their fortune by working enormously hard and by delicately juggling price and volume,” said the 1990 Sun article. Mrs. Phillips said in the article that she took it as a matter of pride that her cooks were backed up by her own recipes.
Mrs. Phillips and her husband accompanied Mr. Schaefer, by then the governor of Maryland, on an economic development trip to Eastern Europe. When Mr. Schaefer died in 2011, he left Brice Phillips $2,500 and described him as “one of the nicest men I ever met.”
In 1990 the Phillips family, faced with an unpredictable supply of domestic crabs, opened a crab processing house in Southeast Asia. They also opened retail operations in airports and spots outside Baltimore.
After retiring, Mrs. Phillips would stop by the Ocean City restaurant and act as a hostess.
Mrs. Phillips had served on the boards of the Atlantic Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the University of Maryland Medical Systems, and on the Board of Trustees for the Appellate Judicial Nominating Committee.
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She was a member of Atlantic Methodist Church, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, the Library of Congress Madison Council, Maryland Restaurant Association and the Dunes Club, and was a member and benefactor of the Ocean City Life Saving Museum and the Art League of Ocean City.
She also had a home in Florida, where she was near her children and grandchildren.