The History of Alex Lee

Alex Lee was founded in 1931 when two Lebanese brothers, Alex and Lee George, purchased Merchants Produce Company in Hickory, N.C. 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 strongly believed 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, we instituted cost-plus pricing in 1956.  This enabled the company to sell higher volume at a lower cost – 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, 172,000-square-foot facility.  We continued our tradition of innovation by moving 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, adding 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 George, 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 service of restaurants, schools, and hospitals.

Alex Lee has always believed in the importance of partnering with our customers in growing their business and ours together. 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, S.C., in 1982.  Following a fire at the Dillion facility, a new warehouse operation was built in Florence, S.C., 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 was 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, Alex and Lee.

Lowes Foods continued their store growth by adding 19 more stores by 1989.  They also introduced a new concept, FreshSmart, in 1994 that emphasized a 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, N.C., bringing the number of stores to over 100.

Our business growth continued, and in 1998, we moved into a brand new, 1-million-square-foot warehouse in the Hickory area.  The new 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 expand 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 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, N.C., in 2010 and introducing a new value format – Just$ave – in 2011.

In 2012, Alex Lee sold IFH to Performance Food Group and turned 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, N.C. That spark of innovation has led to continued development of new concepts to further differentiate our stores.

MDI 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 a Safe Quality Foods Institute-certified facility. 

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

In 2019, Alex Lee acquired W. Lee Flowers, a wholesale and retail grocery distributor, located in Scranton, S.C. W. Lee Flowers distributes to more than 130 grocery stores in the Carolinas and Georgia, including 63 stores that it owns and operates. 

In September 2020, Alex Lee announced its next exciting milestone in serving our customers with the highest level of excellence: the 200,000-square-foot expansion and automation of the MDI warehouse. The expansion and automation will include the latest sophisticated logistics technology and automation, which will allow for greater efficiency and continued growth. The project will be completed in 2023.

The expansion will subsequently free up space within the current MDI warehouse and allow for the expansion of the perishables space. Plans for this expansion were released July 2022, and the project is expected to be completed in 2024.

Today, with more than 15,000 employees, we, as Alex Lee, 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.


Alex Lee 90th Anniversary Video

Celebrate with the Alex Lee family.


  • 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


    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


    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.

  • 1984 MDI acquires LFS


    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


    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.

  • 1960_MDINewWarehouse_Resized


    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.

  • 1965 IFH Formed


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

  • 1968

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

  • 1973_IFHHickory_Resized


    IFH moves into 50,000 square foot facility.

  • 1984

    MDI acquires Lowes Foods.

    1984 MDI acquires LFS
  • 1985 MDI Acquires IFH


    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


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

  • Early 1990s

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

  • 1992_AlexLeeFormed_Resized


    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_Byrds_Resized


    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.

  • 2006_IFHFlorence_Resized


    IFH builds new distribution center in Florence, SC.

  • 2011

    Lowes Foods introduces the Just$ave value format.

    2011 JustSave Storefront
  • 2013_LowesStoreFront_Resized


    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.

  • 2015_NewConceptsCK_Resized


    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_AlexLeeSign_Resized


    Alex Lee introduces a new logo.

  • 2017

    Alex Lee acquires Souto Foods.

  • WLF_Vertical_FullLogo_Internet


    Alex Lee acquires W. Lee Flowers, a wholesale food distributor, located in Scranton, South Carolina.