July 19. 2014 7:52PM

Market Basket shelves take hit as employees at distribution office walk out

New Hampshire Union Leader

Grocery clerk Zach Farmer waits to hand out fliers Saturday to customers leaving Market Basket store No. 21 in Portsmouth. The flier said the board members have the authority to reinstate ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. (Mike Lawrence/Union Leader Correspondent)

MANCHESTER - At the Market Basket he manages on Elm Street, Peter Gulezian pointed to a case that normally holds ready-to-heat dinners.

In the wake of employees at the supermarket chain's distribution office walking out on their jobs in protest over the firing of revered former CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, that case instead held dozens of bottles of water on Saturday.

"We don't have any product to make these dinners with," said Gulezian, whose name tag tells customers that he has 31 "proud years" with the company.

That pride took a hit last month, when Demoulas was ousted by the company's board of directors after years of infighting among the Demoulas family, including Demoulas' cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, who gained control of the board of directors. The walkout by headquarters and distribution employees has one goal: to force the board to reinstate Arthur T. Demoulas, whose likeness and the phrase "I believe" has been reproduced on posters that hang throughout the chain's 72 stores.

"That's all we're asking for," said Robin Jarvis, a 36-year employee and a manager of the Market Basket store on Storrs Street in Concord. Jarvis said that, in his 3½ decades, he'd never heard of an employee's job being threatened until the company's new co-CEOs, Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch, distributed a memo last week saying that anyone who walked out would be "permanently" replaced.

"Things have already changed," Jarvis said.

About 1,000 company managers, employees and supporters rallied Friday at the grocery chain's headquarters in Tewksbury, Mass., where warehouse staff and truck drivers have threatened to stop deliveries until Demoulas is reinstated.

Christopher Mackin, a faculty member of the Harvard Trade Union Program, a lecturer at Rutgers University School of Management and founder of Ownership Associates, which specializes in employee-owned companies, was at the rally.

The workers, he said, "are acting like owners even though, legally, they are not. They are asserting their ownership psychologically and emotionally, and that's worth something."

Mackin said that one possible solution might be for Demoulas and the workers to break away from the Market Basket chain and launch their own company.

However the conflict ends, Mackin added, the fight for Market Basket is unlike anything he has witnessed during his long career, and he praised the workers for their passion.

"This is courage like I have never seen," he said.

Market Basket has about 25,000 employees across New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine. Attempts to contact corporate management Saturday were unsuccessful.

Here's how the situation looked Saturday at a variety of New Hampshire stores.

In Manchester

Lettuce, cat litter, fresh fish, blueberries and those red, plastic Solo cups were among many items also either out or emptying fast.

"We pride ourselves on our appearance," manager Gulezian said as he passed by the drinks aisle, where Gatorade was running low. "This is not us."

The only fresh fish left in the seafood department were some tilapia filets and shellfish.

"Those will be gone by tomorrow," he said. To make up for the lack of fresh fish, employees took frozen fish, thawed it and sold it as "previously frozen."

The Elm Street store had several signs up providing associates, vendors and customers with the email addresses of Thornton, Gooch and other executives, encouraging people to "tell them what you think."

Customer Joy Pinciaro told Gulezian herself, "We support you guys," she said after she and her daughter, Chelsea, passed by a case containing just a few bunches of asparagus.

In Plaistow

The support for Arthur T. Demoulas was clear, as photos of him were placed outside and inside. Store director Gene Crochetiere, a 38-year veteran of the company, and several other employees were also wearing buttons with a photo of Demoulas.