Chesapeake Quarterly Volume 7, Number 1: The Phillips Story
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The Phillips Story

By Jack Greer

Phillips Seafood restaurant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, photograph by Jessica Smits

It's hard to talk about imported crabmeat without talking about the Phillips family. Especially Steve Phillips. Born on Hoopers Island before there was a bridge to the rest of the Eastern Shore, Phillips and his family had to wait for low tide to drive to the nearest town. He grew up in, on, and around the Chesapeake. His family lived off fish, oysters, and crabs. In 1954, when he was 14, they moved to Ocean City, where they opened a small seafood stand. Their two picnic tables soon grew to ten, and then into a full-blown restaurant. The rest is part of Maryland's seafood history. In 1980, the Phillips family opened a second restaurant in Baltimore, then one in Washington, and others in Annapolis, Myrtle Beach, Atlantic City. Now there are Phillips restaurants in airports.

As the business grew, so did the demand for crabs. Customers wanted more crabs than the family could get, and they wanted them year-round. Steve Phillips set out on a mission that would take him far from the Eastern Shore.

His search turned up stories of an abundant crab in the Philippines — the blue swimming crab. With considerable gumption, he hopped a plane to Manila to check it out. There were, he learned, rich crab grounds farther south in the province of Negros, but the Philippine authorities warned that an outsider could run into trouble there.

Phillips persevered. He caught a small plane south and began hanging around the shore, asking questions, watching. Then an odd thing happened: the fishermen started talking crabs. Though far from home, Phillips was a crabber through and through, and he thinks the fishermen picked up on this. They talked about different gear. What kind of bait they used. What kind of luck they were having. He built pots from chicken wire and showed them how watermen do it in the Chesapeake. Before long, he made good friends. And he tapped a large supply of the blue swimming crab, a crab very like the Chesapeake blue crab. It would soon be served in "Maryland-style" crab cakes back home.

An empire was born.

The Phillips company now has processing plants in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, and elsewhere. In addition to crabs they also process lobsters, scallops, and tuna. They employ some 18,000 workers and have aggressive plans for more expansion. The family from Hooper's Island has done well.

They have also outsourced both the catching and processing of their product — the very essence of globalization.

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