History

The history of Alex Lee, Inc.

Alex Lee was founded in 1931 when two Lebanese brothers, Alex and Lee George, purchased Merchants Produce Company in Hickory, NC. The company had 12 employees, 3 trucks, and 5,000 square feet of warehouse space. In addition to small grocery stores, they serviced restaurants, schools, hospitals and mill stores. By 1938, they had expanded to supply area grocery stores with all the goods they needed to operate. They changed the name to Merchants Produce and Grocery Company.

Although the competition was fierce, the company continued to grow by valuing employees, customers, and their suppliers.  The company also believed strongly in the importance of innovation.  In 1949, we became one of the earliest wholesalers to install IBM punch card tabulating machinery. This enabled us to maintain a perpetual inventory and print invoices mechanically.

In another bold and innovative move, in 1956, we began cost plus pricing. This enabled the company to sell higher volume at a lower cost which was a huge risk at the time.  In the same year, we changed our name to Merchants Distributors or MDI, supplying products to full service grocery stores.

Sales continued to grow, and in 1959 we moved into a new facility of 172,000 square feet. We continued to innovate, and moved to a mainframe computer with superior customer and inventory tracking, improved reporting and an ability to control our pricing.  We continued our commitment to our customers by creating new services such as an advertising department, a rack service program, and limited retail pricing options as well as installing state-of-the-art warehouse technology and equipment.

In 1965, we recognized the need to separate the grocery business from the food service business.  Alex and Lee with Norman James of the James Corporation formed Institution Foods House (IFH) as a separate company. Lee George became their president, and IFH took over the servicing of restaurants, schools, and hospitals.

MDI has always believed in the importance of partnering with our customers in growing their business and ours. In the 1970’s, MDI developed merchandising programs to offer a broader range of retail-merchandising support for our independent customers.

IFH also continued to expand with entry into South Carolina with the purchase of Brothers Foods of Dillion, South Carolina in 1982.  Following a fire at the Dillion facility, a new warehouse operation was built in Florence, South Carolina, and the IFH presence was expanded in the coastal regions of the Carolinas.

In 1984, MDI acquired Lowes Foods.  Lowes Foods, a MDI customer, was established by James Lowe in 1954 in North Wilkesboro and subsequently owned by JC Faw. When MDI acquired Lowes Foods, they operated 75 stores in North Carolina and Virginia.

In 1985, MDI also acquired full ownership of Institution Food House (IFH) establishing a fully integrated food service distribution company.

In 1992, Lowes Foods, IFH, and MDI became the three companies of Alex Lee, Inc., named in honor of our founders.

Lowes Foods continued their store growth by adding 19 more stores by 1989. They also introduced a new concept, FreshSmart, in 1994 that emphasized full selection of quality fresh foods, upscale customer service, and faster checkout.

In 1997, Lowes Foods purchased Byrd Food Stores in Eastern North Carolina, and in 2000 purchased 12 Hannaford Brothers stores in Raleigh and Wilmington, North Carolina bringing the number of stores to over 100.

Our business growth continued, and in 1998, we moved into a brand new million square foot warehouse in the Hickory area. That warehouse was built with all the latest technology.  Also in 1998, Alex Lee started a new storage and distribution business called Consolidation Services which supplies an array of warehousing and distribution services. We have continued to find ways to use our expertise to develop new business offerings.

In keeping with our entrepreneurial spirit, IFH entered into a new venture in 2003 called IFH ChefSmart, a new retail concept. We also continued to expend IFH with a new, state-of-the-art IFH Florence distribution center in 2006.

Lowes Foods also continued to look at new business opportunities.  In 2007, the first Lowes Foods Fuel station was opened.  Today we have 22 fuel stations.

We continued to experiment with new concepts and offerings at Lowes Foods building a concept store in Hickory, NC in 2010 and introducing a new value format, Just$ave in 2011.

In 2012, Alex Lee, Inc. sold IFH to Performance Food Group turning its focus to the retail and wholesale distribution businesses.

In 2013, Lowes Foods set out to break the mold of the standard supermarket and create a distinctive grocery shopping experience worthy of our Carolina roots. The development began with in depth consumer research and a series of workshops designed to get the very best ideas from managers across all facets of Alex Lee.  During these workshops, our new vision for Lowes Foods was born: “We bring community back to the table.”

Several new concepts were created, now known as “Originals”, including Chicken Kitchen, SausageWorks, Pick & Prep, and the Community Table. In 2013, Lowes Foods re-opened the first store to offer the newly developed concepts in Clemmons, North Carolina. And, the spark of innovation has led to continued development of new concepts to further differentiate our stores.

MDI has continued to grow with a 116,000 square foot freezer expansion in 2014, and a perishables expansion in 2017.  With the additional freezer space, MDI offers full service cold storage in an Safe Quality Foods Institute certified facility. 

In 2017, Alex Lee acquired Souto Foods, LLC located in Atlanta, Georgia. Souto Foods offers an extensive selection of products from Latin America and Caribbean countries, as well as other countries around the world.

Today, with approximately 10,000 employees, we, as Alex Lee, Inc., continue to operate and grow in the same way we began: by focusing on our customers, respecting our employees, and keeping our entrepreneurial spirit alive.

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Alex Lee 85th Anniversary History Video (2016)

Video created for 2016 Alex Lee annual meeting and 85th Anniversary with interviews and stories about our history

Timeline

  • 1931

    Moses George buys Merchants Produce Company for his two sons, Alex and Lee, on September 21. The company had 5,000 square feet of warehouse space, 3 trucks, and 12 employees.

    Office Portrait 1940s
  • 1935 Merchants Produce

    1935

    Merchants Produce moves into its second warehouse in downtown Hickory.

  • 1940

    Merchants Produce builds a 20,000 square foot warehouse in Hickory.

    Warehouse 53
  • Josephine

    1942

    Alex leaves for WWII and Josephine George, the youngest of the three children, steps in to call on customers and handle other office duties.

  • 1949

    MDI is one of the first grocery wholesalers to introduce IBM’s punch card tabulating equipment.

    1949_IBMKeypunchClass_Resized
  • 1984 MDI acquires LFS

    1954

    The first Lowes grocery store opens in North Wilkesboro, NC.

  • 1956

    The company name changes to Merchants Distributors, Inc., MDI for short, to represent the variety of products they now sell, and a new logo is introduced.

    1956 new name MDI
  • 1956_CostPlus_Resized

    1956

    MDI announces cost-plus program.

  • 1956

    The Highway Act kicks off rapid construction of the interstate system; by the late 1960s most of the major interstates that MDI drivers would use had been built including I-40 which went through Hickory and I-77 which went between Statesville and Charlotte.

    1956_I40Construction_Resized
  • 1960_MDINewWarehouse_Resized

    1960

    MDI opens its 172,000 square foot state-of-the-art warehouse and office facility on Twelfth Street Drive NW in Hickory.

  • 1963

    MDI brings in its first mainframe computer.

    1963_MDIMainframe_Resized
  • 1965 IFH Formed

    1965

    MDI and local foodservice distributor James Wholesale form Institution Food House (IFH).

  • 1968

    MDI’s fleet of trucks includes 28 tractors and 24 trucks.

    1968_MerchantsProduceBecomesMDI_Resized
  • 1973_IFHHickory_Resized

    1973

    IFH moves into 50,000 square foot facility.

  • 1984

    MDI acquires Lowes Foods.

    1984 MDI acquires LFS
  • 1985 MDI Acquires IFH

    1985

    MDI acquires IFH.

  • 1988

    A new 90,000 square foot facility opens in Florence, SC to replace the Dillon, SC distribution center that was destroyed by fire in 1986.

    1988 IFH Florence
  • 1989_LowesHeadquartersInWinston_Resized

    1989

    Lowes Foods moves home office to Winston-Salem, NC.

  • Early 1990s

    Lowes Foods introduces a new logo with apples to represent fresh.

    1990s_Early1990sLowesLogo_Resized
  • 1992_AlexLeeFormed_Resized

    1992

    Alex Lee forms as the holding company for MDI, IFH, and Lowes Foods. Alex Lee, Inc. is named after Moses George’s two sons.

  • 1997

    MDI builds a state-of-the-art 1 million square foot distribution center under one roof on US 321 in Hickory.

    1997_NewMDIWarehouse_Resized
  • 1997_Byrds_Resized

    1997

    Lowes Foods introduces Lowes Foods to Go and acquires Byrd Food Stores in Eastern North Carolina.

  • 2001

    MDI builds a new office building at the distribution center.

    2001_MDIOfficeBldg_Resized
  • 2006_IFHFlorence_Resized

    2006

    IFH builds new distribution center in Florence, SC.

  • 2011

    Lowes Foods introduces the Just$ave value format.

    2011 JustSave Storefront
  • 2013_LowesStoreFront_Resized

    2013

    Lowes Foods sets out to break the mold of the standard supermarket and create a distinctive grocery shopping experience worthy of our Carolina roots. “We bring community back to the table”. Lowes Foods introduces its new logo. The new concepts and logo are first seen in the Lowes Foods store in Clemmons, NC.

  • 2014

    MDI completes a 116,000 square foot freezer expansion.

    2014_FreezerExpansion_Resized
  • 2015_NewConceptsCK_Resized

    2015

    Lowes Foods continues to innovate introducing new concepts and an improved and updated Lowes Foods to Go service.

  • 2016

    MDI introduces a new logo for the first time since 1968.

    2016_MDIEntranceSign_Revised
  • 2016_AlexLeeSign_Resized

    2016

    Alex Lee introduces a new logo.

  • 2017

    Alex Lee acquires Souto Foods.

    Souto Foods Logo