TEWKSBURY, Mass. -- Triumphant Market Basket workers celebrated both their first day back to work on Thursday morning and the return of the man they had risked their jobs for -- CEO Arthur T. Demoulas.
Demoulas finalized a deal Wednesday night to buy the company from rivals within the Demoulas family, after he was ousted as CEO in June.
"As I stand before you, I am in awe of what you have all accomplished, and the sterling example you have all set for so many people across the region and across the country," Demoulas told assembled workers and supporters from a makeshift stage on the bed of a pick-up truck parked in front of headquarters.
"The public watched in awe and admiration because you empowered others to seek change," he added.
A sign thanking customers for their support throughout the boycott hanged off the truck. To Demoulas's right was a large stuffed giraffe that become the employees' mascot; they had stuck out their necks for their beloved CEO because he had stuck out his neck for them.
"To our valued customers: we will never forget the 35 days you stood by our side," the sign said.
Workers and customers in the crowd of several hundred sported "Market Basket Strong" T-shirts and cheered loudly after each of Demoulas's sentences.
"We love you!" they yelled.
Demoulas told workers he loved each of them, and that seeing them again was like "a little piece of heaven on Earth.
"May we always remember this past summer first as a time where our collective values of loyalty, courage and kindness toward one another really prevailed, and in that process we just happened to save our company," he said.
"You have demonstrated to the world that it is a person's moral obligation and social responsibility to protect a culture which provides an honorable and a dignified place in which to work," Demoulas added.
Demoulas told workers that his father, whom he credited with setting the tone for the company's culture, would have been proud of them. Workers shouted back, "He's proud of you."
Under the deal struck Wednesday, Demoulas agreed to purchase for $1.5 billion the 50.5 percent of the 71-store chain owned by his rivals within the family.
He will regain control of the company immediately while a deal is finalized, which is expected to take several months. Current co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch remain pending the closing.
Headquarters and warehouse workers, whose walk-out through July and August prompted customer boycotts that forced the sale, returned to their jobs Thursday. Red and white Market Basket trucks rolled out of the warehouse parking lot to make their deliveries of fresh meats and produce to stores.
Those in the crowd who had once chanted, "Who do we want? ATD!" now yelled, "Who do we have? ATD!"
"This is a man who literally cares about each and everyone of us," said Corey Glaude, a 29-year-old warehouse worker from Manchester, N.H. "The sacrifices we made paid off."
Kenneth Sweeney, a truck driver who has worked for Market Basket for 30 years, said he got the call to return to work at 3:15 a.m. Thursday. He was up and at the warehouse within a half-hour.
"This means everything," Sweeney said, of seeing Demoulas address the workers. "It's what we're all here for. We support him and he's showing the same support for us."
Warehouse workers Jovannie Ferrer and Alex Cruz were at headquarters before 8 a.m., anxious to get back to work for their 3 p.m. shift.
"We're like kids on Christmas right now," said Cruz, a 23-year-old Lowell resident. "We're part of history. That's the best part. We showed corporate America that you're not going to do whatever you want and get away with it."
Ferrer, 26, also of Lowell, said he had come early in hopes of being on the morning shift. Even though he had to wait, seeing Demoulas speak was worth the early wake-up call.
"I can't wait to get in there and punch in," he said.
Another employee, Michael King, of Chelmsford, has worked as a company controller for 25 years.
He said that although it took longer than he thought it would, he never lost confidence that the walkout would end with Demoulas' return.
"He's the guy who should have been sitting in that office for the last eight weeks now," King said. "It wasn't right for him not to be in there. It's the way things were meant to be."