Brice Phillips, founder of Phillips Seafood restaurant chain, dies at 90

July 2, 2011

Brice R. Phillips, 90, who built a seafood empire from a tiny beach-town crab shack that he and his wife opened in 1956, died July 1 at his home in Ocean City. The cause of death could not be confirmed.

Mr. Phillips grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and worked in his family’s crab-packing business before he and his wife, Shirley, began to look for a place to open a restaurant where they could sell surplus crab meat. They finally settled on the seaside vacation getaway of Ocean City.

They opened Phillips Crab House, a wooden shack with four seats, with an initial investment of $2,000 and for years lived above the restaurant. Mr. Phillips ran the business side while his wife cooked crabcakes and other seafood dishes in a cast-iron skillet.

They had imagined that living in Ocean City would give them plenty of time to frolic on the beach with their two sons, but the restaurant became so popular that they seldom got to the water.

“Sometimes we wouldn’t go out of the building for two to three weeks at a time,” Mr. Phillips told The Washington Post in 1985.

The crab house quickly grew into a local institution. Mr. Phillips’s mother and stepmother worked as cooks for more than 20 years, using family recipes from their Dorchester County community of Hoopers Island.

The original Phillips Crab House now covers an entire city block. It has 1,600 seats and has become the foundation of one of the country’s largest family-owned restaurant chains.

After opening two other restaurants in Ocean City, Mr. Phillips expanded to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 1980. That location once reportedly had the third-highest gross sales of any restaurant in the United States.

Nearly every week, Mr. Phillips told The Post, he received calls from developers all over the country asking him to open new franchises. Today, there are 19 Phillips seafood locations up and down the East Coast, including in Rockville and on the District’s Southwest waterfront. A day before Mr. Phillips’s death, a franchise opened at the Newark airport in New Jersey.

Brice Reginald Phillips was born Jan. 15, 1921, in Fishing Creek, Md. His family had lived for generations on Hoopers Island, an Eastern Shore sailing and crabbing community that was settled in the 17th century.

His father founded A.E. Phillips & Son, a seafood processing plant on Hoopers Island, in 1914. It remains in family hands, along with another plant on Deal Island, Md.

Mr. Phillips graduated from business school in Baltimore and worked for Bethlehem Steel before serving in the Army during World War II. He then returned to the Eastern Shore to work in his family’s business before opening the Ocean City restaurant.

As Maryland crabs became increasingly scarce in the 1980s, Mr. Phillips’s restaurants began to import more of their crab meat from Asia. The decision engendered controversy among consumers and competitors, but it also created new commercial opportunities.

In 1990, the Phillips family opened its first crab processing plant in Asia and spun off a new business, Phillips Foods. Under the leadership of Mr. Phillips’s son Stephen and former company president Mark Sneed, who died in 2007, Phillips Foods has become the world’s largest processor of crab meat, with plants in Asia and Latin America.

The privately held company is headquartered in Baltimore, with Stephen Phillips as its chief executive.

Mr. Phillips professed not to enjoy the livelihood that brought him considerable wealth, with multiple homes and automobiles.

“If I had a choice of businesses to be in,” he told The Post in 1985, “the restaurant business would be down on my list.”

Nonetheless, he continued to keep a close watch on his family’s restaurants until shortly before his death.

In addition to his son of Annapolis, Mr. Phillips’s survivors include his wife of 68 years, Shirley Flowers Phillips of Ocean City; another son, Jeffrey Phillips of Ocean City; a sister; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

One of Mr. Phillips’s closest friends was former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer, who died in April. They often sat together along the Ocean City boardwalk, watching people pass by.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Schaefer’s will left a bequest to Mr. Phillips of $2,500. In the only personal remembrance in the will, Schaefer noted that Mr. Phillips was “one of the nicest men I have ever met.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.