CHELSEA — Loyal customers of Market Basket, the supermarket chain that is the subject of a bitter power struggle, gathered in small but enthusiastic groups outside many of the company’s 71 stores Saturday, rallying in support of employees and in protest of the company’s new leadership.
Brighton residents Julie Handley and Charles Hoar were among about 30 customers chanting and waving signs outside the Chelsea store Saturday afternoon. The pair, who said they make the long drive to shop here because of the low prices and friendly employees, held signs demanding the company accept ousted president Arthur T. Demoulas’s offer to buy off other shareholders and retake control.
“If all of these workers are willing to shut this place down like they have, and risk their jobs and their families, then they deserve to win,” Handley said, as passing cars blared their horns in support.
Some Market Basket workers have refused to work for Arthur S. Demoulas, who gained control of the company and fired his cousin Arthur T. last month. In response, the company fired eight longtime managers last week for encouraging a widespread employee rebellion.
But the crackdown only kindled further anger, and inside Market Basket stores in Chelsea and Somerville on Saturday, many shelves remained empty as drivers who deliver new goods continued their strike.
In a Saturday posting on a Facebook page workers have been using to organize, employees rejected the company’s offer on Friday of “amnesty” for workers who return to their jobs.
“[Arthur T. Demoulas] must be reinstated with full authority,” the posting said. “This has been and will continue to be non-negotiable.”
Bob Chausse, assistant manager of the Chelsea Market Basket, said he and other employees were laughing off the apparent concession to protesting workers, whom the company had previously threatened to fire.
“They’ve lied to us before,” he said.
Chausse said business was down about 75 percent since the ownership change, with customers staying away because of the shortages or in solidarity with employees.
He praised the customer rally and promised the store would win back any shoppers who switched to other stores during the turmoil — once Arthur T. is reinstated.
“They understand our fight,” Chausse said. “We’re a blue-collar company, they’re blue-collar people, and we’re here for them.”
At the cramped Somerville store, where a typical weekend shopping trip means circling for a parking space, weaving through cart-clogged aisles, and waiting in long lines to pay, the parking lot and store were nearly empty Saturday. A group of about 25 employees and customers led chants on the sidewalk out front.
The scene was similar inside the Chelsea store, where the typical torrent of weekend shoppers had dwindled to a trickle. A few shoppers pushed carts through mostly deserted aisles, scouring half-empty shelves. Checkout lines consisted of just one or two customers.
Except for a shelf of browning bananas, hardly any fruits or vegetables remained, and many dry goods were also missing. Some items supplied by outside vendors, like processed meat, frozen desserts, and nonperishable snacks, continued to be delivered and were fully stocked. But the inconsistent inventory has driven many regulars to other stores.
“This place is usually teeming, and look, there’s no one here,” Hoar said, gesturing at the desolate parking lot.
Nearby, 29-year-old Tracy DeJesus and her young daughter led customer protesters in chants using a bullhorn. She said she supports the workers and wants the store to retain its friendly community feel, even though the protests have upended her carefully planned food regime.
“My daughter is a type-1 diabetic and she also has celiac disease, so we have a very particular diet,” DeJesus said, ticking off cheaply priced specialty items like gluten-free chicken tenders that are available at Market Basket. “There’s absolutely no other way I can survive and feed my entire family except by shopping here.”
DeJesus said the family is cutting back and following a simplified diet while she researches prices at other stores, but she insisted, “I’m not walking in there and spending another cent.”
Despite the dramatic slowdown in business, the Chelsea store remained fully staffed; three part-time employees holding signs in front of the store even suggested that disgruntled managers had doled out extra shifts to them as a way to inflict additional costs on the new leadership.
Chausse called Arthur T.’s offer to buy the company “a little glimmer of hope.” But in the meantime, he and other store managers would rather lose their jobs than work under the new leaders.
“I’m not working for anybody else. My job is on the line,” he said. “He’s been good to me for 32 years, and I’m going down with him if I have to.”