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A Market Basket store, returning to life

Seasoned crews restore vibrancy to Burlington location

BURLINGTON — The doors of the tractor-trailer open on a bounty of chicken, Swiss cheese, and sliced onions.
A swarm of grocery clerks in blue jackets and managers in red descends on the loading dock, using hand-operated electric jacks to spear pallets of food that the workers stack in the cavernous storage rooms in the back of the Market Basket supermarket.

The dairy manager asks a colleague for help: “You know I’m out of practice.”

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Bob McKeown fills a display case with fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts, a few garnished with smiley faces made of jelly. Samantha Bond decorates a cake to honor the moment, etching the words “Market Basket Strong” in icing and an image of the yellow giraffe that served as the employees’ mascot of sorts during the protest — for “sticking their necks out.”

“There’s a demand for them,” Bond says of the cakes.

And for pretty much anything else the workers can get onto the shelves.

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This Market Basket store in Burlington came back to life over the last few days, resuscitated by a cadre of employees eager to get to work after the six-week protest that forced the return of Arthur T. Demoulas as head of the family food empire. Like the others in the 71-store chain, the Burlington store was the scene of a rapid restocking, a huge task involving thousands of pounds of produce, meat, bread, canned goods, and other groceries.

It started early Thursday morning, hours after Demoulas announced he had reached a $1.6 billion agreement to buy out his cousin and take over operations of the chain.

In one spot at the store, the butcher shop received 70 boxes of sirloin tips, boneless pork, spare ribs, and other cuts of meat. Dressed in a tie, white jacket, and maroon Market Basket baseball cap, Roger Picanso carved out chuck roasts with a 10-inch curved knife, while his colleague Erik Vendittelli rotated a bloody hunk of beef to find an entry point to cut Delmonico steaks.

The cuts were placed on Styrofoam trays, which 35-year company veteran Ron Zabierek fed into a wrapping machine, while assistant meat manager Mike Coakley tried to fill the empty display case with finished flats of red meat.

As soon as he could set the meat down, the customers, who had arrived soon after the store opened at 7 a.m., snapped it up.

“This morning’s gone faster than all of last week,” Coakley said.

“It’s better than protesting,” Vendittelli noted.

The first morning back had been about congratulations and hugs and handshakes as customers came in more to talk to employees than to shop. Amid the celebrations, workers admitted to anxious moments during the stoppage. They worried their defiance would cost them their jobs — “I’ve been living on antacids for the last six weeks,” one said — and couldn’t wait to get back to the unglamorous but satisfying routine of running a supermarket.

That routine had returned in full by early Friday.

On that morning, more than a day after Demoulas had won control of Market Basket, the bread vendors showed up an hour early, arriving in the predawn darkness to deliver carts of hamburger buns and pitas and hoagie rolls. At one rack, Charlie Moussalem moved aside wraps from Cedar’s to make room for packs of still-warm Joseph’s pita bread.

Assistant meat manager Mike Coakley welcomed back customer Lennie Palmer.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

Assistant meat manager Mike Coakley welcomed back customer Lennie Palmer.

This summer’s interruption at the Market Basket chain cost Moussalem $2,500 a week, an example of the financial hit that many of the workers suffered during the standoff. With the stores losing tens of millions of dollars in sales, company executives cut back or eliminated hours for thousands of part-timers — the bulk of the chain’s workforce.

“After so many weeks of being without a job, I’m behind on every single bill,” said Sara Umana, 20, who has a 4-year-old-daughter to support.

As she spoke, Umana nimbly placed leafy bunches of baby bok choy on trays in the supermarket’s produce storeroom. She and a cluster of workers tackled a shipment of Asian produce, chatting in Spanish as they unpacked tiny purple eggplants, green papaya, and bumpy red balls of lychee.

Other produce workers stocked freshly packed jackfruit and lotus root out in the store. Then grocery clerk Jack Fiote called out: “Truck’s here.”

They dropped what they were doing to wheel in sacks of potatoes, boxes of romaine hearts, crates of watermelons, and 10-foot-high pallets of plastic-wrapped green bananas.

“You almost missed me, didn’t you?” the driver said to a clerk as he steered a jack piled high with produce.

“Now we’re starting to flow,” said Wayne Breland, a 51-year-old former landscaper from Woburn who started working at Market Basket a year ago, after he had a stroke. His daughter works there, too, in the customer service booth.

In the back of the market, some wide-open storage rooms also began to fill — boxes of pasta and Slimfast and packaged cinnamon rolls in dry goods; stacks of yogurt and juice in the dairy cooler. A pallet of paper towels was rolled to aisle 13, while a case of angel food cake mix headed to the bakery, also buzzing with activity.

“It’s almost like Christmas morning,” said 62-year-old Bryan Southworth, a receiver for the store, as he stood near the loading dock, flipping through a thick sheaf of invoices for seafood, meat, soda, frozen foods, and ice cream.

A Market Basket man for more than three decades, Southworth sports tattooed arms and a pack of Parliaments in his chest pocket. When another truck arrived, Southworth hit the public address system. “Meat, deli, dairy to grocery receiving,” his voice crackled over the loudspeaker. “Perishable order.”

As the members of the crew prepared to unload the truck, one teased the driver: “About time you got here.”

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff (left); Zack Wittman For The Boston Globe

Shelves at several Market Basket locations left bare during the summer standoff were replenished as employees returned to work this week after the board struck a deal with Arthur T. Demoulas.

A pleasant bustle filled the store, and everyone was moving a little faster. “Let it Go” from the movie “Frozen” played over the loudspeaker.

The store’s phone kept ringing — part-timers, asking when they should come back. Some, like 75-year-old cashier Ruth Hurley, just showed up.

“I’m feeling an 8 a.m. shift,” front end manager John Garon told her.

They hugged. “If you need me this afternoon, I’ll come back,” she offered.

“I’m just kind of making up shifts right now,” said Garon, 31, whose father was one of the employees fired for leading the protest.

Shelves slowly filled. The seafood case, a black hole a few hours earlier, was suddenly an icy collection of pink salmon, silvery haddock, and dark red tuna. In produce, color gradually returned to the lifeless black bins in the form of glossy green peppers and bright yellow lemons, tomatoes, mangos, and peaches. The customers, hot on the workers’ tails, reached for sweet potatoes and corn as quickly as they were stocked.

The display cases out front were a jumble of four-for-$5 boxes of rice pilaf and $2.99 potato buds, seemingly dumped there by a hurried worker before moving on to another task.

“It’s nice to be here, isn’t it? People don’t get it,” one shopper said as she pushed her cart past another customer. “I couldn’t stay away,” the other replied.

But many customers did, in fact, stay away during the unusual job action, out of solidarity with the protesting workers or because there was no fresh food.

The Burlington store is among the largest in the Market Basket chain. But it had a fraction of the normal traffic of 40,000 customers a week during the work stoppage, and only one of its 21 cash registers was in operation.

“We watched our store go from being completely full all the time to completely empty in a matter of a week,” said Mark Gouthier, the store’s manager. “You hate seeing it that way.”

Customers examined meat products at the Burlington Market Basket.

Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe

Customers examined meat products at the Burlington Market Basket.

Like many other employees, Gouthier has been with the company since he was a teenager. He met his wife at the Market Basket in Haverhill, and their two children work for the company.

On Friday morning, as he took in the scene out back, where yet another truckload of food was arriving unexpectedly, Gouthier marveled as his supermarket came back to life.

“I don’t know how they did it,” he said.

The store was even beginning to sound like its old self: the rattle of grocery carts, beeping of scanners, and wailing of impatient children in the checkout line.

Sixteen registers were open. At one, 75-year-old Daniel Lambrinos, a retired hairdresser from Arlington, bagged groceries and dished out playful lip to customers: “If you kick her in the butt, do you think she’d move?” he asked one of two sisters in the checkout line.

The smell of pizza wafted through the air. Prized pie maker Jose Figueroa is back, rescued from a new job at a Tedeschi store that he was supposed to start that day. “It didn’t cost me as much as Artie T., but I got him,” said kitchen manager Edward Maloney, wearing a white chef’s hat. “Hey — it’s my first Artie T. joke.”

There were no rotisserie chickens or sub sandwiches or chicken parm, but Figueroa’s pizza was in the oven and Tim London was mixing up shrimp scampi. One of the sushi chefs came up from the seafood department, but Melinda Silva already knew he was checking for fried tempura and stopped him before he could ask.

“Not till later on, Sunny,” she said, dumping oil in the fryer one container at a time.

By Saturday, the shelves were nearly full, there were lines at the checkouts, and the parking lot was crowded. Feelings of vindication, relief, and camaraderie were in the air.

“You never know what you have,” bakery manager Pam Charland had said a few days earlier, “until you almost lose it.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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