Katy Burns: In many ways, Market Basket saga is unique
Maria Arvarado, of Haverhill, Mass. finds empty produce bins as she shops at Market Basket in Haverhill, Thursday, July 24, 2014. Arthur T. Demoulas, the former chief executive of the Market Basket supermarket chain whose ouster has led to employee protests, customer boycotts and empty shelves, says he wants to buy the entire company. (AP Photo)
Last Wednesday around noon, a slightly rumpled man in cutoffs and a colorful shirt ambled over to the store employees who were manning a small table outside the Market Basket on Storrs Street. He addressed them earnestly, even passionately.
“This is my market. I am a part of this place. Can I help? How can I help?”
The sidewalk and the store were festooned with signs. “We are Market Basket.” “Don’t feed the greed.” “Market Basket Strong.”
There was drama. “I’d rather die with a sword in my hand than a knife in my back!”
I was particularly taken with a very well-drawn picture of the conniving Mr. Burns, corporate villain extraordinaire in The Simpsons, and a scrawled question: “Seem familiar?”
And over and over, hand-lettered pleas asked for the return of “Artie T.” – Arthur T. Demoulas – the Market Basket CEO who was dethroned in a coup led by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Artie T. smiled from posters with “I Believe” stamped on the bottom.
The two stores are part of the family-owned, Massachusetts-based, 71-store chain that has been totally disrupted by widespread employee anger and fear that a man they see as having been their champion, who’d offered them good-paying stable jobs, pensions, profit-sharing and bonuses – benefits almost unheard of in today’s cutthroat business world – had been shoved aside by rapacious family members more interested in looting the business than in seeing it continue to thrive as it had been.
That’s not an unfamiliar story in America.
But this time employees were pushing – pushing hard – for the return of Artie T. And by mid-week, the saga of Good Artie T. versus Bad Artie S. had captivated much of New England.
Not only were thousands of employees actually standing up for, not against, their former corporate boss, but more thousands of loyal customers, won over by good products for (usually) low prices, were siding with the employees.
By Wednesday, chaos ruled.
Deliveries – the lifeblood of grocery stores – were all but halted. Suppliers, particularly smaller New England-based farmers and seafood merchants, were alarmed, especially when some couldn’t even get phone calls returned.
And the two co-CEOs brought in by Arthur S. – both hired guns with no experience in the peculiarities of supermarkets – were hunkered down in corporate headquarters, firing some people, threatening others and otherwise communicating very little with the outside world. At one point, no one was even answering the phone. (Am I alone in thinking that maybe having two CEOs maybe isn’t a very good idea?)
And over on Fort Eddy Road on Wednesday, a group of Market Basket workers stood at the entrance to the little shopping center with their own signs, including some emblazoned “Hannaford,” with arrows pointing to the rival supermarket just hundreds of yards away. At the store’s entry, more employees – by no means callow youths – asked people to sign petitions supporting them.
The parking lots of both stores were almost car-less – a remarkable sight – and the stores themselves were eerily empty and quiet. It was like stumbling into a Twilight Zone episode.
In the Fort Eddy store, the incessant loudspeaker announcements of store specials were absent. In both stores, supplies of meat were spotty at best, and fresh produce was almost nonexistent, although the Storrs store had, inexplicably, an enormous supply of bananas. Neither store had seafood. Packaged foodstuffs were clearly dwindling.
The Fort Eddy store’s bakery did sport a table full of fresh-baked crispy cookies, in cellophane bags tied with pretty little ribbons with different colors identifying different varieties. They are really good cookies. And I passed them by.
I didn’t set out to boycott the stores. Like many Concord shoppers, I find Market Basket on my regular grocery route. I just wanted to check out the scene. But I knew I couldn’t walk out with even just a bag of cookies and face all those unhappy people, many of whom I’ve come to know (and to like) over the years.
I was not alone. If Market Basket’s Fort Eddy parking lot was nearly empty, Shaw’s was – for the first time in years – nearly full. And Hannaford’s lot was jammed, as was the store. It was hard to navigate my cart through the produce section. The deli was swarmed. And shoppers were wandering around peering down aisles, sometimes doubling back to sections they’d already passed, presumably searching unfamiliar territory.
A guy restocking blueberries said that “this is like the day before Thanksgiving. Except it’s every day. The weekend will be pandemonium.”
Folks in the meat department were hustling out with trays of packaged chicken and hamburger, and a veteran pressed into service at checkouts said business was up 50 percent.
Employees told reporters that they were confident Artie T. would be back. Cynical observers said they were dreamers and were courting disaster – discipline, at best, or dismissal. Who knows who’s right?
Because – as everyone was saying by week’s end – this is virtually unheard of in corporate America. Employees – many with 30, even 40 years of service – fighting to keep a multimillionaire boss? Putting their jobs on the line? Customers, at least temporarily, deserting in droves? It has to go beyond good jobs and low prices.
Maybe it’s because the whole spectacle is so engrossing. A family feud that goes back decades, to a time when Good Artie T. was Bad Artie T., when he took a swing at Artie S. in a courthouse, of all places. When things got so serious that two of Artie T.’s lawyers – not sleazy ambulance chasers in cheap suits but upstanding, prominent members of the bar in beautifully tailored garb – engaged in misconduct so egregious they were disbarred.
And maybe it’s that greed thing. We hear a lot about greed at the top these days, but most of it is so removed from ordinary life it’s hard to relate to. But this is, in effect, in our kitchens. We can relate.
A guy, Artie T., succeeded in building a supermarket chain that – while stuck stubbornly in the 20th century with dowdy stores, an antiquated checkout system and (the horror!) no website – was using happy employees to rack up big profits and to deliver good food at reasonable prices to millions of New Englanders.
And he was unceremoniously booted by his very own cousin, Artie S., in part because, from all reports, Artie S. was interested in wringing more money from the store – likely with price increases – for himself and his branch of the family than Artie T. thought was prudent. Artie S. could likely cost us money.
It is worth noting here that several years ago Artie S. was tied for eighth-richest Bostonian by Boston Magazine. His net worth? $1.6 billion. Yeah, with a B. As one employee asked in a radio interview, “How much money is enough?”
The drama has continued.
On Thursday, Artie T. offered to buy out Artie S. and his supporters. And on Friday, Market Basket’s board of directors – again, people without notable supermarket experience – met and issued a brief statement to say they would “seriously consider” Artie T.’s proposal “along with any other offers” before making any recommendations to the company’s shareholders.
They also “reaffirmed” the hiring of the new CEOs, meaning it’s unlikely sweetness and light will reign anytime soon at Market Basket.
So, attention shoppers! Better get used to those aisles and displays at Hannaford and Shaw’s and all the other markets you’ve been sampling in the last week. Get to know your local farmers markets as well. And you know what you’ll find out? Other places have good food. Bargains too!
Now if one of ’em would just steal that great Market Basket recipe for crispy cookies.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)