LOWELL — To truly understand the Greek tragedy unfolding before our eyes, we need to go back to where it all started.
That brought me to this old mill city and cultural heart of the state’s Greek community, where everyone seems to know a Demoulas, work for a Demoulas, or is loosely related to one.
It began in 1917, when family patriarch Arthur Demoulas opened a neighborhood grocery store on Dummer Street. That seed grew into today’s $4.6 billion Market Basket empire.
Known as Demoulas market, it was one of many Greek-owned stores at the time. While the original location is long gone, people around here still say they shop at Demoulas when they head to a Market Basket.
Old-timers remember Arthur’s sons, Mike and George, who worked side by side in the family business. Unlike the current generation, they got along.
Each had a son named Arthur, and as we all know by now, they went to war — with each other. Their battles have spilled from the courtroom to the boardroom and into the grocery aisles, with 25,000 jobs and 71 stores hanging in the balance.
Would things have gotten so out of hand if their fathers were still alive?
“Never,” said Peter Cocalis, the longtime owner of
Olympia Restaurant, nursing a Johnnie Walker Black in one hand and fingering rosary beads in the other.
Of course, you could blame Mike for starting the feud that his son Arthur T. and nephew Arthur S. have continued, an assertion backed by the courts.
Cocalis knows both families well, and like many others in this town, he’s not taking sides.
In fact, people around here say there are no Bad Arthurs, only good ones. The Olympia sits a couple of blocks from the original market. Mike and George were regulars, coming in twice a week for lunch or dinner.
The Arthurs eat here, too. Arthur S. was spotted a few weeks ago, and Arthur T. sat down for a meal three months ago with the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Marty Meehan. They chatted about the economy and the supermarket business.
I thought the people who know them the best could tell me why these cousins can’t see eye to eye.
Arthur S., once he gained control of the company, pushed out Arthur T. as president in June.
Employees are rebelling and customers are boycotting the stores in solidarity, unless he returns. To resolve the standoff, Arthur T. has offered to buy out his cousin.
Some say that jealousy fuels the blood feud — one cousin, Arthur T., was groomed to run the business, while the other, Arthur S., was cut out.
Some say that the legal battles took a toll when Arthur S. accused his uncle Mike and his family of stealing shares from his side, following the untimely death of his father, George, of a heart attack in 1971 while vacationing in Greece.
Others say it’s about fairness. If one side of the family built the business, they should enjoy more of the profits.
And no one thinks it’s just about money.
“They have plenty of money,” said George Zaharoolis, 75, as he polished off a chicken kabob at the Olympia, which hummed with lunch customers Wednesday.
Zaharoolis knows both Demoulas factions, and was treasurer of the nearby Holy Trinity church when Arthur S.’s father served as president.
The Arthurs were born rich and grew richer, with court documents showing more than $1 billion in Market Basket profits were distributed to the families over the past decade alone.
After George’s sudden death, Mike took care of everyone.
He was known as a relentless businessman, a workaholic who built the modern-day Market Basket.
He believed in low prices for customers and treating employees right.
From a young age, his son, Arthur T., could be found by his side, learning how to check produce and be a boss with a heart.
Artie T., as people call him, stayed in the Lowell area to grow the franchise, while Arthur S. built a life in Boston.
When they worked together, Mike and George gave back to the community. Mike and Arthur T. carried on that tradition. The family, often quietly, has doled out millions of dollars to charities, churches, hospitals, and other nonprofits, much of it in the Merrimack Valley.
As you can imagine, Arthur T. — not only among Market Basket employees — walks on water here because of all his good works.
Even the fact the courts have ruled that his family defrauded the Arthur S. side doesn’t sway anyone.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Nikitas Flaris, another Olympia patron. “You are helping everyone else. Why would you hurt your family?”
The Greeks began coming to Lowell in the 1890s, drawn by work in the textile mills. Soon they filled the Acre, a poor neighborhood that was the gateway for immigrants. There were Greek churches, markets, and coffeehouses.
The Demoulases lived the American dream, but everyone says it’s a shame what became of it.
“I don’t know anybody of Greek descent who is enjoying this,” said former governor Mike Dukakis, whose father’s family is from Lowell.
“I hope someone makes some sensible decision here before it ends up in pieces on the floor.”