Lex Alexander: The Food Guy

By Moreton Neal

Unlike some of our more visible chefs and cookbook writers, Lex Alex­ander’s name rarely appears on anyone’s list of Triangle culinary icons. Yet one of our most important tastemakers has been quietly making an impact on the quality of food for over 25 years. Without this modest and unassuming entrepreneur, many of the food items now taken for granted in our kitchens and pantries wouldn’t be there at all.
Alexander is the man indirectly responsible for bringing us The Whole Foods Com­pany, soon to open its fourth market in North Raleigh. His new enterprise, 3Cups, sits just a stone’s throw from Chapel Hill’s Whole Foods Market, formerly Wellspring, the natural foods store Lex and Ann Alexander opened in 1981. After Whole Foods bought Wellspring a decade later, its CEO John Mackey asked him to stay on as director of private-label product — the company’s official “food guy.”
Alexander learned about good eating as a young boy in Charlotte. “My grandfather was a gourmand, particular and exacting about what he ate.” he says. “Grandpa loved to talk to people about food and had a network of friends who sent him the best hams, honey, apples and peaches, according to the season. Through him, I learned the joys of good flavor.”
By the time he left home for college, Alexander’s interest in food was limited to what went into his own mouth. He excelled on Wake Forest University’s championship golf team and later became a professional golfer, dividing his time between upstate New York and California. The young pro and his new bride Ann followed the vegetarian trends of the time — in the Northeast, they embraced the popular macrobiotic diet; while in California, they consumed loads of raw veggies and liquids. Neither regime was very tasty.
A six-month excursion to Europe brought the couple back in touch with flavor. “In Europe, people were oriented to seasonality like my grandfather had been. There was a sensual joy in eating, while in America, health conscious diets were steeped in dogma — what you should and shouldn’t put in your mouth.”
Shifting gears, the Alexanders moved back to North Carolina with the intention of opening a natural food store in Chapel Hill — a community progressive enough to embrace the new health food movement. Unable to find a location there, they settled into Durham’s Ninth Street in a building now occupied by Magnolia Grill. Their goal was to provide a natural foods store combined with a European-style market. “If we had the best cheese, produce and bread in town, we thought we could make a go of it,” recalls Alexander.
The store did well enough, but Alex­ander discovered that customers were going to another venue to buy meat. Well­spring moved to a larger space, added quality meat and prepared foods sections. A second location in Chapel Hill (replacing a defunct Kroger Grocery) soon followed. Both stores hit a chord with local shoppers and flourished.
When Whole Foods, the Texas-based natural foods chain, went public in 1991, the company sought to buy out other successful health food markets in the country. Wellspring had moved in a direction be­yond Whole Food’s realm, attracting customers more interested in freshness and flavor than health benefits — foodies! Whole Foods wanted that market segment. To get it, CEO Mackey needed a leader with epicurean instincts. Recognizing Alexander’s talent for sniffing out great products, Mackey invited him to join the larger company.
At Whole Foods, Alexander was able to connect the store with the best food purveyors around the globe, reflecting the philosophy of eating he learned to appreciate in Europe: “The flavor of food is as important as health.”
By 2001 Alexander left Whole Foods in an attempt to retire — but it didn’t take. With his usual prescience, he saw a new trend emerging, “People wanted to be more connected with their food and its growers, to know where their food came from. 3Cups is my attempt to align myself with the local food economy, but with things you can’t grow here. I think this place is just as new an idea as Wellspring was in 1981.”
Just as he did at Whole Foods, Alex­ander travelled the world to locate independent vintners, coffee and tea growers to meet his standards, and cultivated a personal relationship with each of them. Unlike larger corporate wine companies, his winemakers’ products are made without artificial fermentation methods and added chemicals; to insure the freshest coffee possible, his organically grown beans are roasted locally (by Counter Culture Roasters in Durham) just a few days before serving.
3Cups’ target market is the growing population that buys food at farmers’ markets. Partnering with a wine expert (Jay Murrie, former wine manager of A South­ern Season), Alexander offers regular tastings to educate customers about the finer points of wine and demonstrates how to make a perfect cup of coffee at home.
When I visited the shop, morning coffee and tea drinkers filled the tables, lingering over fresh, locally made pastries. Alexander is already envisioning a redecoration project, more enticing to late afternoon wine drinkers and for the wine tastings already offered several times a week. His goal is to refine the 3Cups concept, then open branches in Durham and Ral­eigh.
In spite of the current economic climate — three buck Chuck and Maxwell House are enticing more than a few customers — Alexander remains convinced that his small coffee and tea growers and vintners will find their market. “We have totally different products than other places,” says Alexander. “Everything we sell is farm-sourced. We aim to be the peoples’ wine store.”
Alexander poured me a glass of a fermented apple cider he discovered on a farm in the Virginia mountains. Never have I tasted a cider so satisfying, delicately effervescent and light. Once more, Alexander proved his gift for finding the best of the best. Though the store features beverages, it offers specialty baked goods, jams, condiments and local artisan cheeses — all chosen with the same discernment as other items on display — to enjoy with your beverage of choice. As I savored the last sip of my cider, my mind returned to Alexander’s grandfather. Surely Grandpa’s spirit is here watching over the store, proud that Lex Alexander is, and always will be, the food guy.

With so many of us taking a “staycation” here in North Carolina, this summer is a great time to enroll in a local recreational cooking class. Here are some of the Metro area’s top choices:
Master Baker Lionel Vatinet teaches a variety of classes, including artisan bread making, at the newly expanded La Farm Bakery in Cary. For listings and dates, go to www.lafarmbakery.com.
Spend a Tuesday evening with Irregard­less Café’s irrepressible Chef Arthur Gordon — his weekly cooking classes including a wine tasting. Call 919-833-8898 to reserve.
Fuquay Mineral Springs Inn Cooking holds a class with Chef Sharon Ricks every Wednesday evening. Reserve by calling 919-552-3782 or link to www.fuquay­inn.com.
Savor Hospitality and Cooking School in Cary offers summer classes including “The Salad Years,” “Get Grilled,” “Fishing Frenzy” and more. Find information at www.savorhospitality.com or 919-468-0516.
Felix Roux, chef/owner of Provence in Carrboro will teach a lesson on classic Pro­vencal dishes, including bouillabaisse, Tues­day evening, July 7, at A Southern Season Cooking School.
In Wilmington, The Seasoned Gour­met holds classes such as “grillin’ and chillin’” all summer. To register, call 910-256-9488 or log on to www.theseasoned­gour­met.com.
Local cooking teacher and cookbook writer Sheri Castle will demonstrate how to grill fruits and vegetables Monday, July 13, at Whole Foods in Raleigh. On Wed­nesday, July 15, Castle will present a class on Sum­mer Vegetarian Meals at A South­ern Season cooking school.
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For a tasteful museum visit, check out “Chocolate: The Exhibition” at the NC Mus­eum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Adult and child tours are available through Aug. 15. Call 919-733-7450 for time and dates.
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Cookbooks from local authors to enjoy this summer: Nancie McDermott’s latest, Quick & Easy Chinese, and Debbie Moose’s new Potato Salad. Fred Thompson’s Iced Tea is perfect for this time of year as is his Bar­becue Nation: 350 Hot-Off-the-Grill, Tried-and-True Recipes from America’s Backyard.
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Il Palio at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill offers a summer supper club series featuring one dinner each month. On July 12, the theme will be “Italy Meets … Africa.” Call 919-918-2567 for details and reservations.
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Herons at The Umstead will offer a three-course menu at lunch for $20. “Craw­ford’s Market Menu” showcases the best local produce of the season. The pre-fixe $20 menu will be available weekdays through August from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Learn more at www.heronsrestaurant.com.
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Humble Pie in downtown Raleigh will feature three-course wine dinners this month prepared by Chef Andy Cordova paired with wines from Dionysus. Dates are July 7 & 21. Call for reservations at 919-832-9222.
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Cuban Revolution Restaurant & Bar, founded in Providence. RI, has opened in the American Tobacco complex in Dur­ham featuring a large menu — from tapas, sandwiches, wraps, sushi to main courses ranging from Cuban specialties to shrimp and steak dishes. Go to www.thecuban­revolution.com.
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Durham’s first, and the third Ruth’s Chris Steak House in the Triangle, will open on Aug. 24 at 7007 Fayetteville Road, adjacent to the Hilton Garden Inn near The Streets at Southpoint. “Despite the challenging economy, the Triangle remains one of the strongest regions in the country,” said Steve de Castro, CEO of Big Steaks Manage­ment and Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s North Carolina franchisee. Go to www.ser­ious­steaks.com for more.