The Buffalo Rock Company started out as a local grocery business in 1901 run by the Lee family and has grown into one of the nation's largest privately held, single-family-owned Pepsi-Cola bottlers. Today worth $575 million, the company operates 14 distribution centers in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, employing 850 people in the Birmingham area and approximately 2,700 company-wide. In addition to soft-drink bottling and distribution, which includes its trademark Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale, the company also runs a vending-machine business and operates and supplies cafeterias and snack bars.
Sydney Word Lee, the company's founder, moved from Aberdeen, Mississippi, to Birmingham soon after the city was founded in 1871. Taking advantage of Birmingham's boom times, Lee founded the Alabama Grocery Company to provide a complete line of grocery products to the area's rapidly expanding population. Lee included on his board of directors influential leaders in Birmingham's emerging industry, banking, and real estate sectors, including Erskine Ramsay and George McCormack (coal mining), Edward M. Tutwiler (mining and real estate), Frederick Johnson, and Henry L. Badham (banking). Lee's grocery business became one of the largest grocery concerns in Alabama.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the forerunners of today's soft drinks were being developed in the South, primarily in Georgia. Entrepreneurs developed iced root beer, sarsaparilla, and cola drinks. Intrigued by this trend, Lee sought out Ashby Coleman, a Selma chemist who had experimented with a ginger mixture that had been used to combat post-surgical nausea experienced by wounded Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Lee created a new soft drink named Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale by adding carbonation to Coleman's mixture. Lee chose the name "Buffalo Rock" after a trip out West where he had seen a buffalo standing on a rock, an image he associated with America's expanding frontier.
With just two employees mixing and bottling the formula and washing and refilling the returnable bottles, Lee began marketing his new product in grocery stores. The drink was an immediate hit in Birmingham, particularly after soda shops and individuals began to create floats by pouring the ginger ale over ice cream or sherbet. By 1916, the drink was selling well enough that Lee began to distribute it outside of Jefferson County. By 1927, demand for the drink was so much greater than the other products of his grocery business that Lee made it the company's sole product and renamed it the Buffalo Rock Company. The company initially was located on First Avenue North but moved to Tenth Avenue and 26th Street in 1922. The new plant became a Birmingham landmark and fascinated residents with its huge electric sign on the roof depicting a Buffalo Rock bottle pouring its ginger ale into a glass.
Sydney Lee passed the leadership of the company to his son James C. Lee in the 1930s. James Lee expanded the company by partnering with a California company to gain the bottling rights of that state's popular drinks, Mission Orange and Mission Grape. He then partnered with a chemist in St. Louis for the rights to bottle B-1, a vitamin-enriched drink. James C. Lee Jr. continued the company's expansion when he became CEO after his father's death in 1951. Soon after becoming CEO, Lee Jr., known as Jimmy, bought the Pepsi-Cola franchise in Birmingham and also added Dr. Pepper and Seven-Up to the company's product line. As a result, Buffalo Rock became the first production plant in America to bottle three major national brands under one roof.
Because the company soon needed more space for growth and expansion, in 1966 Lee relocated the company to a 15-acre site a few miles south of Red Mountain. The grand opening of the new facility featured actress Joan Crawford and drew thousands of local residents. Today, after a multimillion-dollar expansion, the company is now spread over 50 acres in seven different buildings totaling 410,000 square feet. Buffalo Rock also operates 14 distribution centers in other parts of Alabama, the Florida panhandle, and northwest Georgia. In 1970, Jimmy Lee's son, James C. Lee III, joined the firm and worked with his father to further expand the business.
Buffalo Rock has introduced several important innovations to the soft-drink industry. For example, early in the 1960s Buffalo Rock became the first in the industry to use non-returnable bottles. Also, in 1984 the company introduced the highly successful 3-liter bottle for Pepsi-Cola, and in 1986 the company introduced the 20-Pak Mini-Case for 12-ounce cans. In 1981, the company acquired the worldwide rights to Grapico soda. In the mid-1980s, Buffalo Rock opened a vending business in Birmingham and in its regional distribution centers. The operation provides coffee services, bottled waters, specialty juices, and sports drinks. With the additions of these products, Buffalo Rock has become known within the industry as a "Total Beverage Company." It also now operates and services cafeterias, food lines, and snack bars, as well as offering catering services.
Now entering its second century of business in Alabama, the company has received numerous awards, including being named the
Beverage Industry's Bottler of the Year in 2006. In addition, Buffalo Rock has been active in supporting such projects as
the annual Regions Charity Classic Senior PGA golf tournament, the American Village near Montevallo, Vulcan Park, and Birmingham's Children Hospital.
O'Donnell, Joe. The Forge, Metal to Medicine: Birmingham's Business History. Birmingham: Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, 2007.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published January 7, 2009
Last updated July 12, 2013