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Ocean City’s ‘Steel Magnolias’

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The Eastern Shore and in particular Ocean City is a strong readership area for Foodservice Monthly – one that delivers a higher response for advertisers and to our editorial than its size would suggest. The annual Spring Trade Expo in March is a popular foodservice show that signals an awakening of the resort town as winter draws to a close and the summer plan for vacation tourism unfolds.

One of the particularly cool aspects of the OC hospitality story is the role played by women in its growth … and indeed the beach front town was first known widely as the “Ladies’ Resort to the Ocean.” Some of their extraordinary role makes sense in that they took the initiative to open their homes to visitors while the men concentrated on the fishing industry.

In 1997, the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association honored the women of hospitality who by this time were now known as the “Steel Magnolia’s.” The first honorees into this local hall of fame were Thelma Conner, Kathleen Harman, Lois Harrison, Eleanor Kelly, Ann Showell and Dorothy Taylor. Ten years later 250 OCHMRA members and guests at the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel recognized the next six Steel Magnolias: three in attendance were Rose Brous (Flamingo Motel), Susan Cropper (Empress Motel, Misty Harbor Motel, Kings Arms Motel), Eunice Sorin (Nassau Motel) and three who were honored posthumously, Carol Alfonsi (Chalet Motel), Kate Bunting (Belmont-Hearne Hotel) and Betty Frame (Lankford Hotel).

The stories of these incredible women as told by themselves and their relatives had the audience smiling, laughing and at time in tears. The humor in their lives helped them to persevere against all odds … as they supported each other when no one else came to their aid. To those of us who have worked this crazy hospitality business all our lives know that our history has many great stories – most nowhere near the politically correct versions we have to tell in “mixed” company.

Susan Cropper emceed the ceremony not knowing in advance that she was the sixth inductee of the evening. With a keen wit, a beautiful smile and a youthful exuberance that defies time she had one of the common traits of these women – telling it like it is. The “official” press release places the women who built Ocean City as a resort in three categories: “(1) widows with children to support; (2) women with husbands in businesses, such as commercial fishing merchants, watermen, etc. and (3) women with inadequate husbands.” Cropper cut to the chase and digressed from the program script by using her own words: “failed marriages, deceased spouses and shiftless men.”

I’m marking December 2017 on my calendar … that’s when the next six Steel Magnolias will be announced.

Downloadable fotos from the evening can be found at the FSM GALLERY.

About the Author

Michael Birchenall is Editor and Publisher of Foodservice Monthly, a regional trade publication covering the foodservice industry of the Mid-Atlantic (DE, DC, MD, VA). Foodservice Monthly has been recognized as the Restaurant Association of Maryland's Allied Industry Member of the Year and by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington as the Joan Hisaoka Associate Member of the Year.

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