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Friday, August 29, 2014

Customers, employees delighted as area Market Baskets struggle to get back up to speed

Something strange happened at a Nashua Market Basket store on Thursday: It got too crowded.

“I just had to say: ‘Give me another register!’ I haven’t said that in six weeks,” said Scott Marsden, manager of the store at 261 Daniel Webster Highway, gesturing at the row of checkout counters, including one that was just opening to serve customers in line. ...

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Something strange happened at a Nashua Market Basket store on Thursday: It got too crowded.

“I just had to say: ‘Give me another register!’ I haven’t said that in six weeks,” said Scott Marsden, manager of the store at 261 Daniel Webster Highway, gesturing at the row of checkout counters, including one that was just opening to serve customers in line.

The counters weren’t too crowded by usual Market Basket standards, since only half of them were open, but compared to the store’s echoing emptiness during the long boycott that ended Thursday, they were jammed.

They were jammed with happy people, too, as was reflected by the customer who interrupted Marsden’s interview to give him a hug, saying how delighted she was to be back.

“That’s happened all day,” said Marsden. It was part of the joyful, but erratic return of the grocery chain coming back to life Thursday, as news circulated that the Demoulas family struggle had apparently ended late Wednesday night.

At the Market Basket on Amherst Street, Paul Walper, a 15-year Market Basket veteran and meat clerk, summed up the action and mood this way: “It’s like a grand opening.”

He and Gail Gauthier were busy stocking frozen chicken patties into a cooler that had been empty for most of the past six weeks, part of the joyful but erratic return of the grocery chain, as news circulated that the lingering Demoulas family struggle ended late Wednesday night.

Not far away, 33-year Market Basket veteran Deborah Risteen placed tags in each of the stainless-steel containers of the “butcher block” meat section, awaiting deliveries of fresh meat that has been virtually non-existent for more than a month.

“I want to make sure everything is all lined up,” said Risteen, not even pausing in her work as she talked. “We’re hoping to get a delivery tomorrow, or maybe Saturday.”

At the Market Basket in Milford, Dan Colby was one of the first customers in Thursday morning, and he was all smiles.

“All this is probably going to be wrong,” he said, gesturing toward the pile of cleaning products in his cart, “but I’m buying as many Market Basket products as I can find.”

At the meat counter, Ian Palmer replenished the counter at the Milford Market Basket and was happy to see customers returning.

“We’ve got people shopping and not feeling guilty,” he said.

Lots of customers seemed happy to shop without guilt Thursday as news spread that former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas had reached an agreement to buy the 71-store chain, ending the boycott.

“I stayed out until today,” said Janet Fifield of Nashua, a long-time shopper, at the Somerset Plaza store. “When I heard the news, I came down and congratulated them all – and did some shopping.”

Nearby, Paul Donovan of Hollis his arms full of some quick purchases, said the return of Market Basket couldn’t happen soon enough, as far as his family was concerned.

“I can’t believe how dependent we were on Market Basket,” he admitted. “I had never thought about it, never thought about grocery stores at all. .... Now I have a stronger preference than I ever thought I would.”

At the Lowell Road store in Hudson, there was relief galore.

“I woke up this morning and had an email that said ‘we did it’. I’m ready to go. I really am,” said Luke Desmarais, who lives at Mission Pointe in Hudson, just a short walk to his job at what is known as store No. 33 in the Market Basket chain.

“I’m a bagger. I’m 84 years old. I just love my little job. It’s only 12 hours a week. It’s something good for me. I’m glad to be back,” he said.

Co-woerker Chris Przybyla said he was feeling “ecstatic” as he walked through the back stockroom at the Hudson store Thursday morning: “I’ve never been so happy to come to work.”

He said the past few weeks had been “horrible, not knowing if stores were going to close, not knowing if we were going to lose our jobs, not knowing if we were going to lose our house,” he said.

In Milford, customer Bertrand Desrochers said he was so excited he couldn’t sleep last night after he heard the news of the settlement and of Arthur T. Demoulas’ return. The retired Souhegan High School custodian and part-time substitute teacher took part in rallies in Milford and one in Tewksbury, Mass., at the company headquarters. He was on his way to his daily bike ride Thursday morning but stopped in the supermarket before 8 a.m. to wish the employees well.

“I just love the store and the people who work here, and the prices,” he said. “Everything about the store is a positive thing.”

Desrocher said he empathized with employees after going through a labor crisis at Northrop Grumman years ago.

But getting the stores fully operational again will be no small task. Many shelves that are supposed to hold dairy, produce and meats were still empty Thursday, as they have been since an unusual employee action stopped shipments from the main Demoulas Market Basket warehouse in Tewksbury, Mass. A big Market Basket like the Somerset Plaza store holds roughly 40,000 different items, delivered by hundreds of vendors, and it won’t be easy to coordinate all those again.

“I’d say it’s going to take a good two weeks altogether,” estimated Somerset Plaza store manager Marty Maguire. “But we hope to be mostly back in a week.”

Maguire said he was calling back part-timers earlier this week, in anticipation of a deal. The store has about 430 employees all told, most of them part timers. He estimated that at least 50 had probably gotten other jobs since their hours were cut during the job action.

David Brooks, Don Himsel, and Kathy Cleveland contributed to this report.