Expanding the brand

Phillips Seafood

Many crabless airports across America can look forward to a fast-food crab fix from Maryland's Phillips family

January 22, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Phillips, perhaps the most famous purveyor of Maryland crab cakes, has grand ambitions to hook millions of airport travelers across America on this culinary wonder.

The company hopes to place as many as 500 fast crab cake restaurants in airports and other high- traffic locations over the next 10 years.

If the expansion plan works, it would require significant growth at Phillips Foods Inc.'s South Baltimore plant, which currently employs 250 people.

And city tourism officials are salivating at the possibility of the crab shops showcasing Baltimore and Maryland in an array of new locations that are currently, sadly crabless.

"When they go through the airport and see the Phillips and eat at the Phillips, they'll think of Maryland," said Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Department of Business and Economic Development. "They're going to think, `Maybe we should visit Maryland, they've got great seafood and great beaches.'"

Phillips is beginning its foray into the airport arena with a quick casual dining concept, a restaurant called Phillips Famous Seafood, making its debut at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, in Charlotte, N.C., next month.

Through a licensing agreement with Bethesda-based HMSHost Corp., travelers will be able to sample standard Phillips fare including cooked-to-order crab and seafood sandwiches, soups, salads and seafood combinations.

"Host allows us to test the waters outside our home base," said Mark Sneed, Phillips president. "What sort of legs does the concept have outside this region? The goal is to penetrate every market in the U.S. with crab."

The Charlotte airport has 538 daily departures and sees some 24 million passengers a year, according to the most current statistics.

"It's wonderful that a Maryland family-owned business is expanding," Castleman said. "And because Phillips is so much about Maryland, it's an expansion of the Maryland brand. Phillips is synonymous with Maryland."

The fact that the airport restaurant is opening in Charlotte is especially appealing to Maryland tourism officials, because that market is south of the area that the state usually targets with advertising.

"We might pick up some market share, because Phillips is branding Maryland in a place we don't usually target," he said. "It's not a market that we actively pursue. I think the Phillips family is doing Maryland a great favor by putting a restaurant there."

Castleman says he won't be at all surprised if people who like crab cakes start planning their travel plans around airports where Phillips products are available.

He's done it for years with chili, he admits. When he travels, he always looks for opportunities to stop off in Cincinnati, where he knows he can get his childhood favorite Skyline Chili.

"I actually think, `Can I fly through Cincinnati, so I can get my chili?'" said Castleman, a Cincinnati native. "I grew up on it. I love it."

Since 1956, when Phillips opened as a small shack at 20th Street in Ocean City selling crabs and crab meat that were surplus from the Phillips family's seafood packing plant on Hoopers Island in the Chesapeake Bay, the brand has steadily grown and evolved.

Multiple restaurants soon followed, in Ocean City, Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis, Myrtle Beach and elsewhere.

The first of Phillips' own quick, casual-style restaurants opened in Rockville in October, and others will follow this spring in Columbia and Silver Spring. Company officials hope to have five open by the end of the year and another five by the close of 2005.

HMSHost, with its airport locations, is a large part of the growth strategy for the new concept, but Phillips also plans to offer some franchises if the idea goes well.

Phillips officials saw a place for them in the growing market for upscale fast food.

"We recognized that nobody is filling that niche with seafood, and that we could create a concept for that featuring the products that we were making here in our Baltimore production facility anyway," said Honey Konicoff, a spokesman for Phillips. "It's a huge opportunity for us to grow at the same time we grow our concept and to take us to other parts of the country we weren't even looking at yet. The opportunity with HMSHost helps us reach further, quicker."

The Phillips family has been in the seafood business for more than four generations. With crab-processing facilities around the world, the company can supply its own restaurants, as well as other restaurants, with sweet, blue swimming crab meat year-round. The manufacturing division alone does more than $130 million in sales a year.

The company now sells its foods in grocery chains across the country and already has its products in several airport restaurants, including CK's Restaurant and the Fells Point Brewery at Baltimore-Washington International and restaurants in Jacksonville, Sarasota, Tampa and Miami, Fla.; Las Vegas, Nev.; and Los Angeles.

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