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Tewksbury, Mass. - Hours after reaching an agreement to buy the company, the restored chief of New England's Market Basket supermarket chain celebrated with workers in a rally at headquarters Thursday, saying he loved them and appreciated their efforts in helping him regain control.
"Seeing all of you here today is like seeing a little piece of heaven on earth," Arthur T. Demoulas told several hundred workers Thursday morning in Tewksbury, some of whom shouted "We love you" and "Welcome back" during a speech that sometimes resembled a political victory speech, and often took on the tones of a rock concert.
"I am in awe of what you have all accomplished," he said.
Arthur T. Demoulas was ousted in June by a board of directors controlled by rival cousin Arthur S. Demoulas, causing workers to stage protests. Hundreds of warehouse workers and drivers refused to deliver food, leading to empty shelves and tens of millions in lost revenue. Customers stopped shopping at Market Basket, with some even taping their receipts from competitors in Market Basket store windows.
Demoulas on Wednesday announced that an agreement has been reached for him to buy for $1.5 billion the 50.5 percent of the company owned by Arthur S. Demoulas and his allies.
Arthur T. on Thursday described the workers' six-week action as an insurgence.
"The public watched in awe and admiration because you empowered others to seek change," he said.
Tractor-trailers bearing the Market Basket logo and laden with the tons of food it will take to restock the chain's 71 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, as well as vendor vehicles, pulled up to loading docks before business Thursday.
At stores across the region, workers, some of whom have gone weeks without a paycheck, showed up eager for work, while customers returned even though the stores have not yet been fully stocked.
"I am thrilled!" said Shannon Mort, a cashier at the West Bridgewater store's cafe.
Store manager John Gordon, who has worked for Market Basket for 42 years, said customers were already returning.
"I knew we had loyal customers, but for them to stay away like that to support us was impressive," he said.
Kim Gray, who said she's been a Market Basket customer for years but had boycotted the chain during the dispute, went to the West Bridgewater store to shop shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday after she heard that "Arthur T." had finalized a deal to buy the company.
"Market Basket is like a family. I stayed away in solidarity with the workers - my whole family did," she said. "I'm happy to be back."
The company's two current CEOs, Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch, will remain in place until the deal is closed, within the "next several months."
The crisis even prompted the intervention of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, both Democrats. "We are delighted that the parties have reached agreement on terms of sale and resolution of operating authority, so that employees can return to work and customers will once again be able to rely on these stores to meet their needs," the governors said in a joint statement.
More than 160 mayors and legislators in Massachusetts and New Hampshire signed petitions agreeing to boycott Market Basket. The stores, usually jam-packed with shoppers attracted by the chain's low prices, have had only a trickle of customers for weeks.
Business analysts said the worker revolt was remarkable at a family-owned, non-union company, particularly because the workers were not seeking higher wages or better benefits, but instead were calling for the return of their CEO. The workers credit Arthur T. Demoulas for treating them like family, keeping prices low and leading the company's success.
Infighting in the Demoulas family has gone on for decades, but this was the first time the family's squabble had such a deep impact on Market Basket stores.
Market Basket stores have long been a fixture in New England. The late Arthur Demoulas, a Greek immigrant who was the grandfather of Arthur T. and Arthur S., opened the first store in Lowell nearly a century ago.