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After long lull, a rush to restock Market Basket stores

Bereft of customers and fresh food for six weeks, Market Basket supermarkets are likely to burst with activity Thursday as returning employees scramble to restock produce, meat and other perishables to bring the paralyzed grocery chain back to normal operations.

Food vendors who went weeks without selling to Market Basket were already assembling shipments of fresh supplies as they awaited word of the sale, with some already volunteering to bypass the delivery protocol to the company’s warehouses in the name of speed.

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“I’d even consider delivering straight to the stores, if they ask me to,” said Tim Malley, chief executive of Boston Sword & Tuna, a seafood supplier that had $10 million in annual sales to Market Basket before the disruption. “We could instantly return to shipping them their normal weekly quantities.”

And at the stores, an anxious army of once-idle Market Basket employees are ready to spring into action like a NASCAR pit crew to move the food from the loading docks onto empty shelves.

“If they send a truck, we can get the whole place stocked in a couple hours,” Mark Spiller, assistant manager of the Market Basket store in Woburn, said earlier this week. “It’ll be all departments chipping in.”

The Market Basket employees will be working with a purpose: The man for whom they staged the unusual protest that nearly shuttered the $4.6 billion company, Arthur T. Demoulas, struck a deal late Wednesday to buy out his cousin and chief rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, giving his side of the family sole control of the business and ending a standoff that emptied supermarkets in three states of food and customers.

Market Basket executives have a carefully constructed plan to replenish inventory that included a shadow campaign by buyers and store managers to remain in contact with the chain’s vendors and survey available food stocks.

But the sheer scale of the effort means it will be days, if not weeks, before the 71 stores are fully stocked. The company’s own shopping list is staggering: To fill its shelves, it needs more than 12,000 cases of steaks and other beef, 120 tractor-trailer loads of produce, 15,000 boxes of fish fillets and seafood, 187 tons of chicken, 60,000 cases of hot dogs and deli meats and 3,750 tons of dairy products.

One of the company’s warehouse directors said it would take about one day to get small shipments of seafood, milk, and eggs into stores, while meats such as chicken and hot dogs likely won’t arrive until Monday. Farmers are expected to send off truckloads of produce as soon as Thursday.

“You can’t just flip the switch and go back to where you were,” said David Livingston, a supermarket industry analyst at DJL Research in Milwaukee. “Restocking will be a real challenge. Getting employees back will be another. I’m not sure he’ll [Demoulas] get them all back. Some will have moved on with their lives.”

Arthur T. Demoulas and his management team could run into another problem, Livingston added: Vendors frustrated by the loss of business may be wary of resuming supplies, while others cut ties with Market Basket altogether. Some may demand payment up front, for example, out of concern the company’s finances have deteriorated. The weeks of paralysis cost Market Basket tens of millions in lost sales, while the chain also drained some of its cash on hand paying employees during the downtime.

Among vendors, Tony Piedimonte, owner of a 2,800-acre vegetable farm in upstate New York that has supplied Market Basket for more than 40 years, said he is comfortable doing business again with Market Basket. He began lining up trucks Tuesday night after a buyer for the supermarket business signaled a deal for the sale of the company was imminent. He was already preparing to send truckloads of green beans, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, sweet corn and other produce as early as Thursday.

“One way or another, I will get it for them,” said Piedimonte. “If I can’t get it all in one day, I’ll get a good portion of the stores started. I’ll do everything within my power.”

Piedimonte added that he received calls from Market Basket buyers weekly during the stalemate to check how much produce he had available and how quickly he could get it to warehouses in Massachusetts.

Richard Bonanno, president of Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen, also was in touch with Market Basket buyers throughout the standoff. He recalled receiving a directive from Mike Maguire, the grocery chain’s director of produce operations: “He told me that whenever it’s settled, don’t worry about calling ahead. Just bring us whatever you got -- peppers, tomatoes, summer squash, zucchinis.”

But other suppliers say it will take longer to ship products again — particularly specialty items.

One example: Market Basket typically stocks premium sandwich meats from NYDP Deli Patrol, a Westford, Mass., company that supplies high-end retailers and fine restaurants. NYDP had arrangements with farmers in Pennsylvania and Quebec for cuts of high-quality deli meats it sold to Market Basket.

But with Market Basket unable to buy its products, NYDP lost its exclusive access to the farmers’ best quality meats.

“Their attitude is, ‘Your deal was contingent on taking these orders all the time and you flaked out on us, so now you can have the same cuts as everybody else’” said NYDP founder Dan Estridge. “We have been scouring the country for someone to make the same arrangement with, but no luck so far.”

Meanwhile Everett-based Yell-O-Glow, which supplies Market Basket with bananas, plantains, and Latin American food items, will have to scramble to buy fruit from sources it usually only taps in emergencies, such as when a hurricane or some other major event causes a shortage.

“We’ll try to source as much as humanly possible,” said George Koshivas, Yell-O-Glow’s comptroller. “But we don’t have enough bananas on hand to satisfy their traditional needs.”

At the stores, managers said they were already getting calls from customers asking when to expect a normal selection of groceries. Bob Chausse, assistant director of the Market Basket in Chelsea, said he expects to work around the clock as his store gets on track.

The Chelsea store is the largest in the chain, and its produce section alone would need 288 bunches of scallions, 96 bunches of cilantro, and 72 heads of romaine lettuce, among other produce, to fill the store’s empty section. And it’ll take time.

He recently ordered 12,000 different types of perishable and dry goods from the chain’s warehouses, and at least 8,000 were completely out of stock.

“We want everyone to come back and then some,” Chausse said. “You’ll just have to give us a few days to get everything set up.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna. Globe correspondent Jack Newsham contributed to this report.
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