New Bedford’s Phillips Farms Had the Secret Sauce the SouthCoast Still Craves
Back in the days before churrascarias and supermarket rotisserie chickens, there was New Bedford’s Phillips Farms.
The chicken farm was located on a large swath of land near the New Bedford Regional Airport, along Mt. Pleasant Street.
The farm’s store was legendary for its chicken dinners, with large rotisseries cooking up over 40 chickens at a time.
Equally legendary was the homemade barbeque sauce that was brushed across each chicken; it’s a taste that anyone who had it during the farm’s heyday still craves to this day.
WBSM’s (semi) retired newsman Jim Phillips grew up living and working on Phillips Farms, from the time he was about 12 years old until he left for the Army.
“Look, the business was a challenge,” Jim said. “It was hard work, and it was seven days a week.”
Jim performed a variety of duties at Phillips Farms – selling vegetables, cutting and mashing potatoes, just to name a few – and now he’s carrying on the legacy of making that delicious sauce.
But no, you can’t have any. We’ll explain.
The History of New Bedford's Phillips Farms
Jim’s grandfather James Phillips began farming before World War II, and sometime in the 1950s opened up a store on the property, also called Phillips Farms.
"He was a guy who obviously lived through the ‘30s and ‘40s and everything else and knew about difficult times during the war,” Jim said.
“He raised chickens during the war and he had tremendous grain bills after it was over, and he said I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to generate some cash here," he said. "So what he did was get this poultry store started, Phillips Farms.”
Originally, it was located at the corner of Mt. Pleasant Street and Nash Road, but later the store moved to Downey Street in order to make way for Route 140.
The store had a variety of products, including homemade cookies, but the real draw was the chicken dinner.
“You’d come get a chicken and we’d wrap it in foil, and you can get a pint of mashed potatoes, a pint of stuffing, a pint of gravy,” Jim said.
“We had turnips and carrots on Sunday. On Saturday, we had baked beans and brown bread," he said. "We had chicken pies, larger chicken pies and small individual ones – just chicken and gravy. You added your own vegetables.”
On Sundays, the store also offered roasted chickens in addition to rotisserie, and roasted turkeys were available for Thanksgiving.
Phillips Farms even introduced the SouthCoast to “broasted” chicken back in the 1980s.
“There were four places to get rotisserie chickens back in those days – there was our place, there was Law’s Poultry Farm in the West End, there was a place in Fairhaven, Roselawn Farms, that did a good business, and there was a small place in the North End, next to what is now Trucchi’s, called LeComte’s Poultry Farm,” Jim said.
Eventually Jim’s father, also James, took over the business, and ran it until he sold the store in 1984.
The Secret of the Phillips Farms Sauce
While the fresh, delicious chickens were certainly a draw, the key ingredient was the homemade barbeque sauce basted onto each bird.
“There’s some debate in our family about who actually invented, came up with the recipe,” Jim said. “So we all just kind of lay it on my grandfather.”
Jim said that his grandfather felt the chicken needed a little something extra on it, and that’s how he went about coming up with the recipe (“he may have had a little help,” Jim said). It would be brushed onto all the chickens on display in the heated case.
“Most sauces are thicker,” he said. “This is not meant to be something you cook with, although some people do; it’s to put on almost like a dipping sauce, and if it’s made right, it’s really pretty good.”
“The sauce was a big deal,” he said.
Jim’s stepmother Louise Place Phillips was “a whiz” at making the sauce, he said, and would have to make a large batch of it a couple of times a week.
“We’d give you a cup of it when you ordered a chicken, and people would always ask us for extra sauce,” he said.
When Jim’s father sold the business in 1984, he handed over the recipes to the new owner – including the recipe for the sauce. The new owners kept things going for another three or four years before Phillips Farm finally shut down for good.
What Became of the Phillips Farms Sauce Recipe?
“When my grandfather died, he had a lot of papers,” Jim said. “He had a file cabinet that my father asked me to keep in my basement. One day my wife was down there, and she opened the file cabinet and there was a little spiral booklet with all the recipes from the farm.”
Over the years, Jim and his wife Kathy have made the sauce but could never get it quite right.
“What we’ve done in the past is make half a recipe, cut in half. It was never quite as good,” Jim said. “Louise, my stepmother, always used to say you can’t make half, you’ve got to go all the way. The half-recipes were OK, but they were never quite there.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Jim and Kathy made a full batch and think it’s the closest they’ve ever been to recreating the famous Phillips Farms flavor.
“I think it’s pretty damn close,” Jim said. “My brother agrees it’s the closest it’s been to the original.”
Of course, he’s not divulging the recipe, or even the ingredients.
“I don’t know if it means something, but it’s part of our family history, part of my grandfather,” Jim said.
Will You Ever Be Able to Buy Phillips Farms Sauce?
Jim said the discussion has come up with his siblings – brothers Michael, Wayne and Jonathon, and sister Kathy – about whether or not to put the beloved sauce on sale.
“We’ve talked about it, and we have no desire to market it, like Ian Abreu has done with Silmo Syrup,” Jim said. “That’s great, and I’m glad he’s done it. It’s a wonderful thing, but we have no desire to do anything like that.”
“The difference between this and Silmo was that Silmo was something you were always able to buy,” Jim said. “You could never buy the sauce, we’d give it to you. We’d put it on the chicken, we’d give you a container of it, and that was it.”
There’s something to be said about the fact that the Phillips Farms sauce has only ever been made by a member of the Phillips family, and that just might be the case forever.
“This is a family thing, and at least this generation is not going to change that now. God knows what anyone else will do down the road,” Jim said. “It’s just going to stay with the family, and hopefully the family will safeguard it.”
But Where Did the Sign Go?
While the ingredients of the Phillips Farms sauce will remain a secret, there is one mystery Jim would like to see solved.
Back before the store was moved, there was a sign that featured a big two-sided wooden cutout of a chicken.
“After the move, we had no use for the big chicken sign,” he said. “Nobody knew where the damn sign went. I want that sign.”
Perhaps if someone out there still has the Phillips Farms giant chicken sign, Jim will trade you a few jars of sauce in order to get it back.
Make that deal all day. The sauce is worth it.
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