Mr. P’s Legacy
Celebrating its 30th year, Mr. P’s Bistro in Southport is a true family affair and a living reminder of its namesake, Norman Phipps.
“Cooking is the best thing there is,” says Stephen Phipps, chef and co-owner of Mr. P’s Bistro in Southport.
Stephen has been pouring his heart and soul into food since he started cooking at age 16 alongside his father, Norman Phipps, aka “Mr. P.” Norman was a consummate restaurant professional who owned and operated numerous local restaurants, where Stephen and his siblings, Philip, Cory and Virginia, grew up working. Whether cooking, serving, hosting, cleaning or bussing tables, the Phipps children learned how to work hard and contribute to the family businesses.
It was Stephen who had the vision to open Mr. P’s Bistro, the name inspired by both his father and Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans, famous for its barbecue shrimp and oysters. That was back in 1993, and 30 years later Stephen still actively works in the kitchen and is involved in the daily restaurant tasks.
Every day he calls John Haag, the fishmonger he has been talking to for 40 years, to find out what’s coming in fresh for the day, which is vitally important for a restaurant that focuses on seafood and low-country cuisine. Stephen’s specialties include Oysters Bienville (once highlighted in Southern Living magazine), Smith Island Seafood Okra Gumbo, shrimp and grits, blackened tuna, shrimp scampi, Angus beef tenderloin medallions and more.
“This man is the cooking-est fool you’ll ever meet,” Stephen’s son, Addison, teases, thickening his Southern accent. “I mean really. Every single day he gets up, makes breakfast, makes the cheesecake for the restaurant, makes lunch, and then heads up here to start preparing for the dinner!”
Working as a Team
Stephen’s passion for the kitchen is equaled by his brother-in-law Chris Smith’s zeal for customer service. As general manager at Mr. P’s, Chris exudes all the best in Southern hospitality: a calm, peaceful spirit, a sense of humor and great humility. The brothers-in-law make a dynamic duo with a special gift for making guests feel like a part of the family.
“We really have a great mix of long-term customers, local customers and seasonal visitors,” says Chef Stephen, “and when I say long-term customers, I mean there are many families that have been dining with us for four generations in their family. We really love to take care of those long-term clients as best we can.”
Mr. P’s has long been voted as the “Favorite Place to Celebrate” in Southport, and that’s something Chris is proud of. “It is truly an honor to be trusted with special occasions in our guests’ lives,” he says. “From planting that engagement ring on a dessert plate to lighting countless birthday candles, even watching faces light up to a fresh arrangement of flowers for that unsuspecting spouse, we are thankful to share in each celebration.”
Chris says his father-in-law was a great father figure and mentor.
With Mr. P’s encouragement, Chris earned his hospitality management degree in 2001, seven years after first working with Mr. P at Harborside, a former Phipps family restaurant. Harborside is where Chris met the love of his life, Cory, who happened to be the boss’s beautiful daughter. Chris and Cory’s daughters, Bronwyn and Carrington Smith, also work at the restaurant.
“We love working with family and are so proud of what we all do to carry on our grandfather’s hard work, goals, dreams and legacy,” Carrington says.
Addison was raised in the restaurant kitchen just like his father and his grandfather and now works at Mr. P’s as a chef and bartender. Well-spoken, confident and friendly, he is great with people and has been interacting with customers since before age 10, when he started as a busboy.
“Many of our customers have watched me grow up and some of them have even watched my father grow up,” Addison says. “It really is pretty amazing.”
Addison says he understood from a very young age that being part of Mr. P’s family at the Bistro was to have a unique place in his community. He heard the praise from diners each night on how much they enjoyed the food and saw their faces light up every time they saw one of his family members.
He remembers how grateful guests were to be so well taken care of and made to feel so special. These childhood experiences all left a lasting impression on him at a young age.
At the head of the family is matriarch Mrs. P, Jane Phipps, described as the family prayer warrior and encourager, though she has retired from the family business. She says working as a family is never without its strain, but she believes that the family becomes stronger through each challenge. Stephen says the advantage to working in partnership and as a team is that “you can spread the stress around to all the shoulders.” Chris agrees. “We put ourselves second and give our best to others and we just believe the Lord will take care of us and give us all we need.”
The staff is treated like family as well. A waitress for more than a decade in the ‘90s and early 2000s, Maggie Dimette says, “The Phipps always treats the staff like family. It is a family-run business and eventually, that extended to those that work there.
Twenty years later, I still consider the Phipps and the crew I worked with as family.”
Building on a Firm Foundation
After a lifetime of serving the community in restaurants, Mr. P passed away unexpectedly in 2009. From his early childhood in the kitchen at Faircloth’s Oyster Roast in Wrightsville Beach (owned by his Aunt Gertrude Ellington) to his last restaurant, Mr. P’s Bistro, he was a part of many special memories and family gatherings.
Listening to Addison, Stephen and Chris, it’s very clear that Mr. P passed down much more than great recipes. He taught responsibility, working hard, giving your best at what you do, serving others, being patient and working as a team. They say Mr. P was known to be a man of few words and could express himself with a look, but the words he did say were always impactful. A favorite of his sayings: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
He was known to be intimidating at times and always a firm leader, but underneath that hard exterior was a heart of gold. Being what he called the “best kind of rich,” he was quietly generous and a believer in unseen generosity and “never letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In living that out, his life was a shining example in the community.
When asked why they have not expanded or pursued bigger business opportunities, Chris explains, “We are willing to sacrifice of ourselves for our customers and for the high-quality experience and food we offer… but we are not willing to sacrifice ourselves or our family just for more money. Mr. P always said it’s all about the intangible rewards you will receive from this job. He always said that, and he really was right.”
“It’s true,” Stephen agrees. “When you spread yourself too thin, everything eventually falls apart. We are proud that every night customers come in here, somebody from the family will be here. We are proud of how we have enriched other people’s lives and because of that we really are the best kind of rich.”
Mr. P’s children and grandchildren have faithfully carried on his legacy: the low-country cuisine and seafood recipes that have been passed on for many generations, the hard work ethic, the desire to serve people and brighten their days, the quiet generosity and the determination to do your best with what you’ve been given.
The future looks bright for Mr. P’s Bistro to continue shining as a community leader staying committed to offering the best fine dining and Southern hospitality around with great care and love. Addison says he hopes that Mr. P’s is around for many years to come.
“I know without a doubt what I am supposed to do,” he says. “And I couldn’t be more excited about it. I’ve tested and tried it and gone other places and pursued other things, but it all brought me right back here.”
In a fast-growing and quickly changing area, Mr. P’s Bistro’s long-standing presence and the family’s determination to keep it thriving are reminders of the importance of a firm foundation. Mr. P’s steadfast commitment to quality, family and staff are evident in the heart and soul his family pours into every dish and every encounter at the restaurant.
“Mr. P has been gone for a while, but as you can see, he’s still around,” Jane says.
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309 N Howe St, Southport
Photography by Casey Lauren Townsend