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Market Basket workers seek to rally customers

At a store in Burlington, a sign of support for ousted chief executive Arthur T. Demoulas.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

At a store in Burlington, a sign of support for ousted chief executive Arthur T. Demoulas.

Employees at a Market Basket store north of Boston, anxious about the company’s direction since the recent ouster of several top executives, began trying to rally customers to their cause Sunday.

Shoppers at the Burlington Market Basket walked out with eggs, milk, bread — and a pamphlet titled, “We are Market Basket and we need your help.”

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John Garon, a front-end manager active in the campaign, said employees fear the company’s board brought in new leaders to line shareholders’ pockets at the expense of customers and workers.

“All our jobs are in danger,” said Garon, 31, a Market Basket employee for more than a decade. “We have no idea what their true goals are.”

The family-owned company’s board forced out chief executive Arthur T. Demoulas last month after a shift in allegiances tilted control to his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Both were named for their grandfather, who opened the family’s first store in Lowell 98 years ago.

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Neither cousin was available for comment Sunday.

Their dispute — which has included lawsuits, boardroom name-calling, and public fisticuffs — dates to the 1970s, when the father of Arthur S. died and his side of the family began accusing Arthur T. and his faction of stealing company shares.

RELATED: Market Basket developments, openings delayed

Arthur S. loyalists on the board said Arthur T. ignored their counsel and spent money recklessly, including transactions with companies owned by his wife and brothers-in-law. Arthur T. argued that the company had prospered and expanded under his management.

In June, the board voted to replace Arthur T. with Felicia Thornton, a former Albertsons supermarkets finance chief, and James F. Gooch, former RadioShack Corp. president.

In a prepared statement Sunday, Thornton and Gooch said that “the direction of the company has not changed” and employees need not fear losing bonuses or the company profit-sharing plan.

They also addressed the delayed openings of several stores, such as those in Attleboro and Revere, where setbacks led the cities’ mayors to write letters of complaint to the firm’s board.

“We expect to move forward with store openings and are working on the plans and logistics for doing so,” Thornton and Gooch said.

But some loyal customers fear the conflict at the top of the company will filter down to the store level.

“I’m very concerned now, after following what the new regime has in mind,” said Belmont resident Virginia Grant, 71, as she wheeled her cart toward the parking lot.

“I definitely want him back,” Grant said of Arthur T., praising “his caring for the community and the employees.”

Grant, a Market Basket shopper for decades, said she would probably go elsewhere if the new leadership led to a decline in customer service.

“It’s the caring of the employees and their work that makes a supermarket, as well as the quality of the items,” she said.

Chelmsford resident Karen Vaccaro, shopping with her sister Paula Vaccaro of Lexington, said they had been coming to Market Basket their whole lives, and she saw no need to change a business model that worked. “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it — leave it alone,” she said.

Garon, the Burlington store front-end manager, said employees fear Thornton and Gooch will sell off company-owned properties for a quick profit and then lease back its own stores, raising costs and making it impossible for the stores to continue offering low prices.

If that happens, he said, stores that won customer loyalty by offering affordable, high-quality goods may be gone in five or 10 years.

“If it is here, it’s not going to be Market Basket,” he said. “It might be called Market Basket, but it would just be your basic high-priced store.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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