The Phillips Phenomenon

November 04, 1990|By KATHY LALLY

An article on the owners of the Phillips restaurant chain that appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of the Sun Magazine failed to mention that Jeffrey Phillips was married three times, leaving the impression that his two older children were born to his first wife. In fact, his second wife was the mother of his two older children.

The Sun regrets the error.

Shirley Phillips, the crab maven of Ocean City, Baltimore and parts beyond, is sitting outdoors at her Harborplace restaurant in the full splendor of a warm autumn afternoon, marveling over a crab cake. Incredibly, unbelievably even, the crab cake in question is not a Phillips crab cake.

Mrs. Phillips has just come from the Maryland Club, where she lunched with officials of the Maryland Historical Society. And she is aglow. "I just had the best crab cake I've ever had in my life," she exclaims. "That's the best crab cake I've ever had," she repeats to her husband and business partner, "and you know why, Brice."


Brice Phillips inclines his head to the side in the manner of someone who has heard the approaching lecture before. "Oh, I know why," he says quietly.

But for someone who has just met Mrs. Phillips, this is astounding news. What? Shirley Phillips has just eaten the best crab cake of her life, and it wasn't at a Phillips restaurant?

Mrs. Phillips sighs.

"You have to be so careful when you're handling a crab cake," she says. "They want to squeeze them," she says, grimacing as she squeezes her hands together.

"You cannot do that with a crab cake."

"It's almost like you're handling eggs," she says, cupping her hands as if she's delicately, tenderly even, rolling an egg from palm to palm.

"That's what we have to keep telling our cooks. You have to be so careful. It takes constant supervision. You have to be certain the people in food preparation are conscious of how important it is tohandle the crab carefully. The lumps can be broken, and if the lumps are broken . . . " Mrs. Phillips' voice trails off as if the prospect of a broken lump is too painful to contemplate.

"You have to handle crab meat the way you handle eggs. You cannot break that lump."

About 140 miles away in Ocean City, Rosetta Hobbs smiles knowingly. Mrs. Hobbs has spent 24 years in the kitchen of Phillips Crab House. "Mmmmhhmmm," she nods. "Don't break up my lumps. Oh, my dear, how many times has she told me that?"

The half-dozen graying women sitting on stools over vast bowls of crab meat nod in agreement. They, too, have heard this before, many, many times before.

Shirley Phillips is attentive to her crab cakes. The Phillips crab cake eaten so fervently by Marylanders has brought Shirley and Brice Phillips from the marshy isolation of Hooper's Island in the Chesapeake Bay to the front lines of big-time restaurantdom.

The Phillips family has made it very big since they began a tiny, four-seat carryout in Ocean City 34 years ago. Their 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, an extraordinary performance considering those restaurants are far, far pricier.

Last year, Phillips Harborplace grossed $15.8 million, according to Restaurant and Institutions Magazine. And when the Phillipses opened their Norfolk restaurant in a Harborplace-style development there, it immediately brought in $7 million a year, zooming to the top of Virginia's restaurant list.

The nation's leading restaurant in sales last year was the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Mass., which feeds moderately priced steaks to hordes of New Englanders -- grossing $32.1 million. Next comes the Rainbow Room at $26.7 million, the Tavern on the Green at $25.5 million and New York's Smith and Wollensky at $17.5 million, followed by Phillips.

The Phillipses have made their fortune by working enormously hard and by delicately juggling price and volume. As seafood prices have soared, they have served more and more meals, trying to get, they say, the very best seafood at the lowest price they can.

Some restaurant critics may quarrel that the food has become mass-produced, but it's clear the Phillipses offer what a huge market of middle-of-the-road, family-oriented diners want: They want healthy portions -- none of these delicately arranged teaspoonfuls of food -- menu selections they can pronounce and, when they're near water, they want seafood.

Shirley Phillips takes it as a matter of pride that her cooks -- backed up by her own recipes -- know nothing about food when they come to work for Phillips. The Phillips system makes that unnecessary.

"They don't have to know how to boil water when they come to us," Shirley says. "The people in the line cooking just have to be well-coordinated. They either drop it in the fryer or saute or grill or broil it. Seafood is really better the less you do to it. It needs very little preparation. You broil it or saute it or bake it rather than cover it up with a lot of sauces."

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