LOWELL, Mass. -- The scent of 71 bakery departments baking enough cakes, cookies and bread to replenish the barren shelves of Market Basket smelled a lot like triumph for the chain's employees and customers.
The stores' parking lots, much like the shelves and freezers, were repopulated for the first time in nearly six weeks as eager, emotional customers returned to shop. Inside, vendors frantically restocked to meet demand, making some aisles inaccessible.
Scott Ivers, manager of Fletcher Street store in Lowell, says that buyers have been in contact with suppliers, but store managers have little idea when the deliveries will arrive.
"For all I know, I can get a chicken truck in an hour," said Ivers.
Coca-Cola made a delivery Thursday morning, while Country Kitchen brought bread to the store for the first time in eight weeks. While speaking with The Sun, Ivers paused to instruct a representative from Koffee Kup where to place his shipment.
Just two weeks after co-CEO's Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch demanded managers remove protest signs from store windows, the company is making signs thanking customers for their support, available for pick-up in Reading, says Ivers.
"If the customers kept putting money in their pockets, this would still be going on," said Ivers, praising the customers' role in the long ordeal.
Fred Whitton, manager of Store 44 in Billerica, learned firsthand how excited his customers were to return.
"Customers deserve a lot of credit for what happened here," said Fred Whitton, Store 44's manager. "Without the boycott, at the very best, it would've gone on much longer than it did."
By 10 a.m. Thursday, Store 44 had already tripled its sales compared to last Thursday.
"Take care of your people, and your people will take care of you," said Whitton, when asked what message the stand-off sends to other companies.
"People are tired of corporate America taking advantage of the little guy, when we have the power to stand together," said Wendy MacNeill on her way into Store 44. The Billerica mother said that the dispute was an important teaching moment for her 14-year-old daughter, Grace Lemire, who will soon apply for a job at Market Basket.
"It's a good place to start out," said Lemire, an incoming freshman at Billerica High School. Upon hearing the news late Wednesday night, Lemire said her first thought was, "Oh good, we can get milk."
Meanwhile, some politicians' responses to the struggle frustrated MacNeill, who felt Gov. Deval Patrick handled the situation poorly.
"Saying the workers should go back to work, I don't think he should have done that," said MacNeill. "They had a right to protest."
"This has been amazing to show you what grassroots Americans can do," said Chris Musker, choking back tears. "Think of family, and think of those that you care about. It's not about the money, and they'll never get that."
Along with Market Basket's convenience and low prices, many customers missed the store's strong sense of family, which they felt was absent at other chains.
"I have a couple customers not even buy anything, just want to be here again," said Tim Hamilton, a manager at the Chelmsford store. Employees there received calls at 6:30 a.m. to make their 7 a.m. shifts.
"They're just as excited to get back," said Hamilton.
Jerry Savoie, a retired Market Basket employee, returned to Store 44 Thursday morning, proudly wearing his giraffe shirt. He had stayed up all night, taking pictures of the trucks as they pulled away, bringing life back to the stores.
"I guarantee they're going to make a movie of it," said Savoie. "Soup to nuts, it's got everything. Happy ending."
Savoie's daughter, Karen, has special needs and has worked for Market Basket as a bagger for the last 14 years. His son Richard is a driver.
"My wife died six months ago. Half the store came out of respect for me and Karen," said Savoie.
Leslie Mendonca, an employee of the Westford store for 18 years, said that when her daughter was in a car accident, her supervisors told her to take as much time off as necessary -- that "Arthur T. knows."
Though the protests achieved their desired result, they came at a cost for the workers. Mendonca, whose daughter will return to her part-time Market Basket job Friday, says she was forced to dip into her savings when her hours were cut as business dwindled and the store emptied.
Despite their eagerness to return to work, some employees had their doubts that the tug-of-war would ever end.
"It was heartbreaking," said Michelle Christopher, a cashier at Store 44 whose son is a bagger. "Three weeks without work was killing us."
"To be honest, I never thought it would end," said Deb Mahoney, another cashier who previously worked at Blockbuster. "I thought this was going to be the second company I'd go down with."
Nearly six weeks of news coverage has brought the chain of 71 stores newfound publicity and name recognition, which may ultimately help business in the long run.
"To the few people who said Market Basket will never be the same, and you can quote me on this, you're right. We're going to be a 100 percent better," said Musker, a Billerica Town Meeting representative who protested outside Store 44 three days a week. Customers posed for pictures beside her new sign -- "Customers Rock" -- affixed to the concrete stanchion.
"It doesn't take a million dollars to do something right," said Musker.