HAVERHILL — Of all the communities affected by the Market Basket saga, Haverhill may have been hit the hardest.
The city has three Market Basket stores and, for the majority of its residents, they are the most convenient and affordable places to shop. For the past two months, local shoppers had to go elsewhere, struggling to find the same prices, convenience and service they had at Market Basket.
All that changed Thursday. After the Wednesday night announcement that Arthur T. Demoulas would return as chief executive of the company, loyal customers filed in early Thursday to their beloved Haverhill Market Baskets.
"I'm so happy I could cry," Shirley Maclachlan said as she and her husband, Don, shopped at the store in RiversEdge Plaza. "This means a lot."
At all three Haverhill locations, customers and employees were embracing each other, exchanging high-fives and filling the store with energy not seen in the aisles in a long time.
"Words can't describe'' the feeling, Jerry Rourke, manager of the RiversEdge Plaza store, said. "It's better than when the Red Sox won the championship the first time. It's a pretty amazing thing."
During the standoff, older customers had difficulty traveling to other supermarkets to go food shopping. Rourke and his staff would help those people as best they could, offering whatever products they had left in the store.
The Maclachlans do not live in Haverhill, but as residents of nearby Groveland, they shopped at the store often, both for the good prices and the minimal time it took to drive there.
"We'd have to drive 15 minutes to Newburyport, where we only have to drive a few minutes to get here,'' Shirley Maclachlan said. "That's a big difference when you're older.''
Rourke said he understands how important his store and the other two Haverhill Market Baskets are to the community.
"Everyone realizes what we mean to Haverhill," he said. "To have this behind us is like a having a weight lifted off all our shoulders. We can get back to serving these customers who have been so loyal."
At the Market Basket in Central Plaza on Water Street, manager Stephanie Schwechhimer praised Haverhill residents for their constant support throughout the struggle.
"Customers everywhere have been stepping up, but especially in Haverhill, since we really are the only deal in town," Schwechhimer said. "The support has been really overwhelming."
Loyal customers said they are simply happy to call Market Basket home again.
"I'm thrilled," said Melissa Sullivan of Groveland. "I usually come here three times a week. I tried other places, but it wasn't the same as Market Basket."
"I really believed in what (the workers) were standing up for," said Donna Lynd, who lives in North Andover. "I didn't want to shop here until Artie T. came back, and it feels really good now that he is."
Market Basket workers were ecstatic to come to work at the Haverhill stores on Thursday morning. Part-time employees, whose hours had either been severely limited or cut entirely during the saga, were welcomed back with open arms by their full-time co-workers.
Some arrived hours before their shifts to see the stores open. Others even showed up to help when they weren't scheduled to be working.
"This is my vacation week. Early this week, I was up at the beach," said Jared Ferguson, a dairy department worker at the Central Plaza store. "But once I heard (the news), I came back to help. I had to. I didn't want to miss this."
John Surprenant, a 26-year Market Basket employee, is the assistant manager of the Market Basket at Haverhill's Westgate Plaza. When he first heard the news Wednesday night, he didn't believe it at first. There had been plenty of times this summer where it seemed the drama would end, only for it to continue for another week.
Not until he saw an official statement from Arthur T. Demoulas did Surprenant feel "a lot of relief."
"It's been a roller-coaster summer, with more downs than ups," said an emotional Surprenant. "I'm almost speechless. We fought so hard for this. Now we can get back to normal."
With the company back in the hands of Arthur T., Market Basket will move forward. There remains work to be done, as certain sections of the stores, such as produce and meat, remain practically empty.
But the employees who protested for nine weeks are confident the standoff will make the company better than ever.
"We were the best before, and we'll continue to be the best moving forward," Surprenant said. "We'll be a stronger company than before. I guarantee it."