The company traces its roots to Lebanese immigrant Moses George, a grocer who operated in Shelby and Lincolnton, North Carolina. He helped his sons Alex and Lee to purchase Hickory, North Carolina-based Merchants Produce Co., which later came to be known as Alex Lee Inc. after the two brothers.
The retail and distribution company is a family business with three primary food retail and distribution operating companies serving South and North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia and Virginia.
Institution Food House (IFH), Merchants Distributors Inc. (MDI) and Lowes Food Stores Inc. are the three companies that fall under Alex Lee. MDI is the wholesale distributor, while Lowes is its grocery retailer operating about 100 stores located in Virginia and South and North Carolina. MDI, which replaced Merchants Produce and Grocery in 1956, supplies about 600 stores, most of them located Southeast in the U.S. The new company supplied over 400 stores, with a workforce of 130-plus employees at that point.
In 1965, the company started selling its produce to schools, and merged with the James Wholesale Co. to form Institution Food House (IFH), with Lee George as President, and Norman James its vice president. Upon the latter’s death, the brother acquired his share and made IFH an MDI subsidiary. MDI acquired Lowes Foods in 1984. The company has a third-party service and logistics provider that runs as an MDI division with the name Consolidation Services.