Workers at a Downham Market restaurant were left in “utter disbelief” when they were told they now own it.
John Murphy, 43, and wife Maxine, 49, who founded Arbuckles, announced the news to staff on Monday.
It means all 130 members of staff own both Downham and Ely restaurants, worth around £7.5m.
“There were a lot of tears, they were in utter disbelief when we told them,” said Mr Murphy. “Some wanted to know what was in it for them, all the nitty gritty and some wondered how they could have something for nothing.”
After 12 years, Mr and Mrs Murphy, parents to Premier League footballing twins Josh and Jacob Murphy, decided to step-down from the company.
Mr Murphy said: “We were thinking about an exit strategy. We looked at ways to sell the business but wanted to continue its legacy.
“We also wanted to look out for the people who have worked hard for us over the years and made Arbuckles as successful as it is.
“Staff now own 100 per cent of the shares – every table, every chair.
“They will still have to work hard, if you do good things in the world, good things pay you back.”
An employee ownership trust has bought the Arbuckles company with a five-year loan which profits will pay off.
Mr and Mrs Murphy paid £1.5m to the trust from current profits and, after the five-year period, employees will receive annual end-of-year bonuses.
Fifty-one per cent of the business will be held by employees as a collective and 49 per cent will be owned by individual employees, varying from a one to five per cent share.
The couple’s youngest son Daniel Murphy, who is currently studying business management, will have a 15 per cent share.
Mr and Mrs Murphy will still have a level of involvement as board directors and a management team will oversee the business.
Mr Murphy said: “We have sold the business, not just given it away, so we have benefited.
“But this is a good way to keep our staff and also attract staff. Anyone can buy a table or a chair but we pride ourselves on our service. The staff are Arbuckles.”
He added: “From the customer’s point of view, nothing will change. If anything, the service will get even better as it’s no longer just a job for staff, they will want to do well as a company.”
Assistant manager Lewis James, who has worked at the 340-seated diner in Downham since last June, said it was a “massive shock”.
He said: “John and Maxine wanted to wind down and rather than sell it which could’ve meant job losses, they decided to give it to all the staff who have helped to build it up over the 12 years. They wanted to give something back.”