NORTH ANDOVER — Loyal Market Basket customers may be boycotting the grocery chain, but many have paid a visit to parking lots to throw their support behind demonstrating workers.
On Route 114 on Thursday, drivers passing the North Andover Mall plaza weren't honking at fellow motorists. Coolers and trash piled neatly into boxes weren't holdovers from a party. Rather, horns sounded in support of the demonstrators and the coolers filled with food and drink were refreshments for them.
Longtime Market Basket customer Ruth Starks unloaded bananas and oranges from her car to pass out to employees. The day before, she bought everyone lunch.
"Someone else pulled up and left us 10 cases of water. All of this stuff is what people have brought us," assistant store manager Shawn Castles said Wednesday, gesturing to a box filled with empty food wrappers and water bottles. "It has been unbelievable, the support."
Starks, of Andover, said the decision to stand by workers is one she "can't help" but make.
"You don't know what you've got until you lose it. The fact of the matter is, I go into this market, and these people know me. All these people want to do now is remain a family," she said.
Castles said other customers have delivered ice pops and snacks, and the staff of the trauma center at Lowell General Hospital donated 70 Panera sandwiches. Rosa Pereira, the deli manager at the North Andover Market Basket, said protesting employees have hardly had to buy food at all.
"I've obviously never done anything like this before, so I didn't really know to expect anything," she said. "Then it got to be donuts, and coffee, and the pizza. It's crazy."
Pereira is known by fellow employees, including Castles, as the "rally girl." She attributed the nickname to her ability to project and her level of enthusiasm. Signs with slogans like "Honk for A.T.D." are standard, and some of the most meaningful honks they've gotten have been from compete stores.
"Even the Stop & Shop and the Hannaford's trailers are beeping," she said. "Everyone is so proud of us for doing this. It's like support from everywhere."
To avoid standing in the sun from 7 a.m. on, some of employees have contributed lawn chairs, large umbrellas and rigged a tarp into a makeshift canopy. Castles and Pereira both said on hot days, they encourage taking frequent breaks in the air conditioning. Both also said they ensure the store is staffed before they take to the parking lot each day.
"We're waiting for the day they say, 'Go back to business as usual,' and we want to be prepared for it," Pereira said.
On Thursday, Market Basket began advertising a job fair to fill open positions. A statement from CEOs Felicia Thornton and Thomas Gooch implied that employees who are not back at work by Monday will be terminated. Bakery manager Robert Rhind called the fair a "scare tactic."
"Am I fearful for my job? A little bit, but not really. I'll be here on Monday just like every other day," he said.
Near the Market Basket on Haverhill Street in Methuen, part-time deli worker Brayan Cartagena said customers have been the most important part of the call to reinstate ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas -- even more than demonstrations by employees. He said he was surprised to find that people took personal interest in the saga.
"I found it shocking, actually, that customers are willing to help us get our CEO back," he said.
Cartagena spoke of generosity similar to what Market Basket workers in North Andover said they have experienced.
"For customers to be willing to use their own money to help us fight, on top of all of that, it's surprising," he said.
The employees gathered in Methuen wore matching shirts emblazoned with "Methuen #10" on the back, which many of them have worn to the large rallies in Tewksbury. Caragena said he, like everyone, hopes for a swift resolution to the Demoulas dispute.
"To me, it's all about low prices. I don't know what more I can say. Market Basket is the only place to sell food at such a low price," he said.
Even low prices wouldn't be enough to bring longtime customer Starks back if Arthur T. doesn't come out on top, however.
"If (the employees) don't win this fight, and I will be enormously sad if they don't, I won't shop here anymore," she said. "I am so amazingly proud of these people."