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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Customers, employees frustrated at bare shelves, uncertainty as Market Basket protests continue

NASHUA – Joel Ashe doesn’t want his Market Basket to lose its small-town feel. That, and he wants his Polish slab bacon.

Ashe, of Nashua, and his wife Debi loaded plastic Market Basket bags into the trunk of their red sedan Monday in the parking lot of the store on Amherst Street in Nashua after their regular shopping trip. There were plenty of open parking spaces on what was often a very busy time of the day, according to an employee inside the store. ...

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NASHUA – Joel Ashe doesn’t want his Market Basket to lose its small-town feel. That, and he wants his Polish slab bacon.

Ashe, of Nashua, and his wife Debi loaded plastic Market Basket bags into the trunk of their red sedan Monday in the parking lot of the store on Amherst Street in Nashua after their regular shopping trip. There were plenty of open parking spaces on what was often a very busy time of the day, according to an employee inside the store.

The Ashes talked about the current wrangling at the popular chain’s corporate headquarters over leadership and how it may or may not affect local shoppers.

Some shelves were less than full and some food display cases downright empty Monday as deliveries were delayed by ongoing protests by employees of the 71-store chain. Produce was scarce, some dairy products didn’t have as wide a selection as normal and a meat case was completely empty. A pair of employees used equipment to clean it. Nearby a hand-lettered sign, similar to others throughout the store, apologized for the condition of the store and implored shoppers to “join the fight.”

Ashe said inside the store, “there’s a nervous energy in the air.” He and Debi both praised the customer service the grocer provides, and said they worried the staff may become “so uncomfortable that you don’t get that level of service anymore,” said Debi.

He hoped to find his beloved Polish slab bacon, crucial to his BLT. “They said ‘sorry we just don’t have any,’” he said. He and Debi were off to Hudson to see if their luck would be different there.

In Milford, assistant store manager Mike Needle said the last warehouse delivery he received was July 17. Instead of fish, beef and produce, shelves held signs supporting the ousted CEO. On the customer service counter is a petition asking for support of employees’ push to bring back Arthur T. DeMoulas, who was fired in June by a board controlled by his cousin and rival Arthur S. DeMoulas. Outside the store on the chalkboard where the day’s specials are usually posted there was a message of support for Arthur T.

For decades Arthur T. and Arthur S. have feuded over control of the company founded by their grandfather, but never before has it been so public, and the conflict has attracted the attention of New England politicians. According to the Boston Globe, more than two dozen of them have pledged to support a boycott of Market Basket.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan issued a statement Monday encouraging the company’s board of directors to end the stalemate quickly to limit the impact on customers.

Needle, who has worked at the store for 14 years, said he and the 350 employees are trying to stay positive. He called employees’ show of loyalty a “payback” for the loyalty of not only Arthur T., but also Arthur T.’s father. Both men supported their employees over the years, he said.

Needle called the current situation “scary,” but did not think Milford employees’ jobs were in jeopardy because they have all kept on working.

Ashe said he learned about friction in the Demoulas family years ago when he moved to New England. He criticized the recent firing of the company’s popular CEO Arthur T. Demoulas and worried that the existing problems mean that the stores would be “gobbled up by some giant corporation and it’s going to lose that small town feel,” he said.

“Anytime I walk into a Stop and Shop it feels like it’s being run by someplace way far away,” said Ashe. He worried that any shifts made to the stores under new management would change the experience for shoppers, the stores themselves and “then their prices will start to reflect it.”

Inside the Nashua store, Richard Gomez and his daughter Melanie Guerra pushed their cart past hams. They paused by another case where a single package of plastic wrapped cut broccoli sat alone.

“I can see their point with Arthur,” Gomez said, “but the trouble is why take it out on the customers? We need the food. The other stores are more expensive than here.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the customers, Guerra said. “I mean there’s nothing really here. If you come for a salad you ain’t going to get a salad.”

In the vestibule, Chelsea Kasynak stood to meet customers as they entered and left the store. She had several copies of a letter, unsigned and on Market Basket letterhead. Along with it, she had slips of paper with new Market Basket co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch’s phone numbers and email addresses.

The letter starts off with “we write to you in the hopes that you will understand our actions that we have taken today. Every day that we go to work it is with you in mind and today is no different.”

Kasynak asked customers if they’d like a copy as they walk by. Some took copies of the letter and others declined saying they’ve already become informed through media stories.

Inside, employee Ryan Gonzales took a few melons out of a shopping cart and placed them in a case in the produce section. He cleaned out the cart, but the case wasn’t full.

“It makes me feel like the people that have taken over ... it’s kind of evil what they’re doing,” Gonzales said. They’re just firing people without justice. Just kicking people out.”

“It feels like a family,” he added. “All the higher up management, they really give their time to us. The new guys aren’t going to do that I don’t think. Profit sharing’s going to change. Bonuses are going to change. It makes me feel like working retail won’t be worth it.”

Kathy Cleveland contributed to this story.

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or DHimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).