To get some idea of how large -- and successful -- the Phillips Seafood Restaurants chain has become, you need only scan a partial list of its daily groceries:
* 2,500 pounds of crabmeat
* 2,000 pounds of shrimp
* 800 lobsters
* 10,000 pounds of potatoes
* 350 gallons of mayonnaise
* 36,000 rolls
From the small tar paper shack that Shirley and Brice Phillips opened 28 years ago in Ocean City, the enterprise has grown into a multimillion-dollar business and one of the largest family-run chains in the country, dishing up food to more than 25,000 persons on its busiest days at six restaurants around the Mid-Atlantic.
Its 5-year-old restaurant at Baltimore's Harborplace, by itself, ranks as the nation's fifth-largest restaurant in sales, with annual revenue of $14 million, according to the trade magazine Restaurants & Institutions.
In terms of customer volume, however, Brice Phillips, 64, believes his Baltimore operation -- with an adjacent carry-out and raw-bar -- is probably the busiest in the country because the average meal costs about $12, less than half the price of meals rung up at the higher-ranked restaurants with higher dollar volumes, such as New York's Tavern on the Green.
Meanwhile, Phillips' 2-year-old restaurant at Waterside mall in Norfolk, with sales near $6 million, is ranked as the nation's 16th-largest restaurant in sales by Restaurant Hospitality magazine.
The family's Ocean City flagship -- the one-time shack that now has five kitchens, 12 dining rooms and 1,400 seats -- would pull in even more money than the Baltimore restaurant if it did the same volume of business year-round that it does during the months it is open. It closes for the winter between Nov. 1 and March 15.
The size and success of their chain is, at times, amazing to Brice and Shirley Phillips, who launched the business in 1957 with $2,000.
"That was all we could risk," Shirley, 62, recalled in a recent interview.
"If I had a choice of businesses to be in, the restaurant business would be down on my list," added Brice, who began his career as a food wholesaler.
Originally, the Phillipses envisioned their little restaurant merely as a sideline to their main enterprise, a crab-picking house at Hooper Island on the Eastern Shore. Brice had taken the business over from his father after returning home from World War II.
The carry-out restaurant was to be an outlet for some of the packing house's crab supply, as well as a diversion for Shirley, who loved to cook. Although Ocean City is 90 miles from Hooper Island, the Phillipses chose a site there because they thought it would be fun to spend time at the beach with their two young sons when they weren't busy in the restaurant.
But from the start, business was so successful that they never got to the beach. In fact, they had to enlist both of their mothers in the kitchen, using family recipes to prepare many of the seafood dishes for which the chain is now famous. Once in their children's kitchen, Leone Phillips and Lillie Flowers stayed for the next 20 years.
With demand for their seafood so great, the Phillipses quickly began to expand, adding a dining room a year over the next dozen years to the original carry-out shack. For years, Brice and Shirley Phillips and their two children lived above the restaurant. "Sometimes we wouldn't go out of the building for two to three weeks at a time," Brice Phillips recalled.
The carry-out building still stands today, as a cornerstone of the main Phillips Crab House restaurant. Dramatically remodeled since its earliest days, it continues to supply carry-out food to the ever-growing number of Ocean City vacationers, who number about 250,000 on a busy summer weekend.
Because they wanted to expand operations to have a unit on the beach as well as the one a block away, the Phillipses bought a hotel with restaurant in 1973, renaming it Phillips by the Sea, which they also continue to own and operate. Four years later, the Phillipses opened another restaurant in North Ocean City on 141st Street.
It was when their son Steve assumed a greater role in company management that the Phillipses began to take their business outside of Ocean City, setting up restaurants in Baltimore and Norfolk.
The Rouse Co., the developer of Baltimore's Harborplace, eagerly wooed the Phillipses. "They were of great interest to us because they have an enormous following in Baltimore," Rouse spokesman W. Scott Ditch recalled. "Thousands and thousands of Baltimore citizens have made their vacations by standing in line at Phillips in Ocean City. . . . Its food hits a hole in the market so squarely -- it's the middle of the market, not fancy French cuisine but plain good old fashioned crab cakes served in a fun atmosphere and not too formal."
The decision to open in Baltimore was not an easy one, Steve Phillips said. "We were so scared," he noted, recalling the evening the family went to Baltimore to check the site. "We looked out into the streets. It was 6:30 p.m.; there was absolutely no one."
Today, the long lines at the Phillips' Harborplace restaurant are testimony that it was the right move. So, too, are the many calls -- at least one a week -- from other developers urging the Phillipses to open a restaurant at new shopping malls.
"We even got a call from a developer in Hawaii," Brice Phillips said.
Yet, the Phillipses say they plan to keep closer to home. They currently are negotiating for a site in the District; however, because talks are still in progress, they are reluctant to say exactly where.
In spite of past successes, the Phillipses say they still are nervous when it comes to opening new restaurants, worried about the locations and fearful they may not draw as many customers as current units.
"We have to have high volume to keep product fresh and to make a profit," said Brice Phillips, noting that his restaurants must serve four to five different parties per table per day to be successful. "We couldn't exist if we had only two turnovers a day."
With high volume a key element of its business, it is not surprising that the Phillipses are now experimenting with a fast-food seafood restaurant. Last month, the company opened what it hopes will be the first of many "Phillips Seafood Shoppes" in Norfolk. The restaurant, in a former Jack-in-the-Box building, sells many of the same items found on the Phillips' main restaurant menu: crab cakes, steamed shrimp, mussels, oyster rolls, hard-shell clams, scallops and a seafood salad-of-the-day. Prices range from $2.95 for oysters or shrimp with french fries to $8.95 for a jumbo seafood platter.
If successful, the fast-food units may be expanded to other areas of the mid-Atlantic, including Washington. Brice Phillips hopes to set up another Seafood Shoppe in six months, perhaps in Norfolk, perhaps elsewhere.
The success of the restaurants has made the Phillips family wealthy: They own a boat, several condominiums in Ocean City and Florida, luxury cars and several large houses.
Even so, Brice and Shirley Phillips say the best measure of their wealth is their employes, whom they call their "greatest asset . . . We owe our success to them."
Overall, the Phillipses employ about 2,000 people, most of them college students who wait on tables, clean dishes and help prepare food. The Crab House alone employs 500 and all the workers call the Phillipses by their first names (even son Steve calls his parents Brice and Shirley away from work).
No matter what their age or how long they have been with the company, employes are always called girls or boys by Shirley Phillips, who uses those designations as terms of affection. About 30 percent of the help returns year after year. In fact, said Shirley Phillips -- who does most of the talking -- many summer employes return to the restaurant after graduating from college.
"They get a 'real job' and find they don't like it -- they like the excitement of the restaurant business," Shirley Phillips explained. "Many return and become managers, supervising 150 employes. . . . That's how we got our manager of Baltimore. He started as a busboy, came back and took charge of the busboys and then in charge of the North Ocean City restaurant when it opened before he moved to Baltimore."
It is not easy, however, to get a job at Phillips, according to its owners. Today, only one in eight applicants for a waitress position gets a job. Shirley Phillips used to select the waitresses but has passed that task on to her son Steve's wife, Olivia Phillips, who was once a Phillips waitress herself.
Every year, Steve and Olivia Phillips, both 38, become more active in the business, with Steve now the company's president. Steve's brother, Jeffrey, 34, also would be playing a substantial role were it not for an automobile accident 14 years ago, just a month before he was to graduate from Cornell University's school of hotel administration.
"It was the greatest -- and only -- heartbreak I have ever known," Shirley said. Doctors predicted that Jeffrey wouldn't live for more than a year. But he did, and despite the severe tremors that have made it difficult for him to walk or talk, he tries to come to the Crab House every day, Shirley said.
Had Jeffrey not been injured, the chain would be twice as active as it is, said a close family friend who asked not to be identified. "Steve is the aggressive, hard-driving son; Jeffrey is the creative one," the friend said, adding that together they would have made a great team.
Although Brice and Shirley Phillips are trying to ease their workload, they continue to put in long hours, getting up and eating breakfast at the hotel to test the food and service and working until midnight at the Crab House, pitching in whenever the restaurant is short-handed.
On one recent summer night, Shirley, walking past the long lines into the Crab House, noticed a number of empty tables throughout the restaurant. In no time, she hustled dozens of people to seats, took a mislaid broom from the dining room to the kitchen, and returned to seat more people waiting in line outside. In the process, she noted a poorly trimmed plant in the foyer and stopped to prune its dead leaves.
Crabs are still the menu's main attraction, but every year, the Phillipses add new seafood recipes to their selection. Each winter, when business is at a lull, the various Phillips chefs gather at Ocean City to test new recipes for the coming summer season.
Brice and Shirley Phillips say they try to approve every dish before it appears on the menu. A new item, untested by the founders before its introduction, appeared earlier this summer at the Crab House; the Phillipses said they tried it and were so appalled by its taste that they immediately ordered it scratched from the menu and told the chef not to sell it any more, no matter how much remained in the kitchen.
The Phillipses still get many of their crabs from Hooper Island, as well as from Deal Island, where they own another packing plant. But "it is getting harder and harder" to find people willing to pick crabs, Shirley Phillips said. "Brice's daddy used to have 40 to 50 pickers, with people waiting for work," she recalled. "Now, we don't have more than 10 crab pickers," cracking the steamed crabs and painstakingly picking the meat for $1.40 per pound of crab meat.
At Hooper Island, crab picking begins around 3 a.m., the same time crab pickers began years ago when there was no refrigeration and the pickers had to finish processing the seafood before the day got hot. About 10 women sit at stainless steel tables, methodically breaking the crabs by hand, picking the meat, placing it in the appropriate containers -- lump meat, claw meat, plain crab meat. The workers each process about six pounds of crab meat per hour, picking a total of 50 pounds of crab meat in a good day.
There are few young pickers. "The business is dying out because the young people growing up in Hooper Island are moving out," said Shirley. Like the Phillipses, most of the youngsters leave the island to take jobs elsewhere.
After achieving success, many family-run businesses strive to become larger corporations by selling stock to the public to underwrite future expansion.
But for the moment, at least, the Phillipses say they have no such plans. "We have been able to finance ourselves so far," said Shirley Phillips. "As long as we have money to expand, we will try to keep the business in our family. You lose something by going public -- not just control but some incentive. It's better for us and for customers to keep it with the family."