CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When James Bazzelle moved to Charlotte in 1991 working as a chef at the Holiday Inn, he never dreamed that his own restaurant would one day be right next door.
Fueled by passion, the Mert’s Heart and Soul owner mastered several avenues in the food industry before opening the restaurant with his wife, Renee’, in 1998.
It's a passion the Athens Georgia native said he stumbled upon “by accident.”
As a senior in high school, Bazzelle said a close friend convinced him to join a home economics class because it was mainly filled with girls, and although he didn’t find his wife until years later, Bazzelle did find something else he loved, food.
"My home economics teacher told me how good I was and I just stuck with it from that point on," he said.
After completing his associate degree in Food Service Management at a vocational college in Athens, Bazzelle worked on and off in various Georgia restaurants before making his move to the Queen City.
"When I got here, I wanted to open a restaurant. I had been seeing Charlotte for years and keeping up with it. I thought it'd be a great place to grow because it's small and not big, but big and not small," he said.
When he first touched down in Charlotte, Bazzelle worked as a chef at the Holiday Inn, right next to where Mert's resides now, something he couldn't have even imagined at the time.
"My mother had just passed maybe a couple months earlier and I said, 'Man I ain't got no job and I said I always said I was going to open up a restaurant and I'm going to do it now.' I talked that talk for a long time and I made it happen," said Bazzelle.
While balancing a catering service out of his home, Bazzelle created several business plans, but, one in particular, stood out. He wanted to open his first restaurant in Noda, before it became the popular arts and entertainment district it is today.
Bazzelle said there was only one restaurant in that area at the time and he wanted to fill the void, but the banks didn't believe in him.
"I did all this work about the building and the demographics for the area and we won the bid to buy the building, but I didn't have any money," he said.
Bazzelle tried to get loans, but was turned down because bankers told him "nothing would ever work in Noda," a decision I'm sure now comes with great regret.
"They were going by the numbers, they weren’t going by the person," he said.
Without the money, Bazzelle was forced to turn down the bid and continue the search for his first restaurant. Eventually, he used his connections to get a small loan and found a building for rent on North Tryon, which would soon become Georgia on Tryon, Bazzelle's first restaurant.
"I didn't want it. I told my wife, 'I think God wants me to have it. I don't want it, but I'm going to make the best out of it'," he said.
Soon, the small eatery became a hit with the locals.
As the city began to grow, Georgia on Tryon was featured in a local news article where Bazzelle discussed his concerns about big companies taking over small businesses.
A Bank of America executive read the article and made a visit to Bazzelle to reassure him that they would never try to push him out of business. After their meeting, the executive stopped by for lunch and business meetings on a regular basis. The relationship formed during those lunchtime hours was the catalyst for Bazzelle’s dream restaurant.
“‘He brought all the bankers to the restaurant for a meeting and said, ‘We need more places like James' place, neighborhood places for people to come,’” said Bazelle.
A week after that meeting, Bank of America asked Bazzelle if he was interested in moving his restaurant to a new location, a move that would later bring Mert's Heart and Soul to the heart of uptown Charlotte.
While trying to find the perfect southern name for his restaurant, Bazzelle said he thought about Ms. Mertle Lockhart, one of his most loyal customers from Georgia on Tryon. He said she was the epitome of a southern woman, and decided to name the restaurant in her honor.
One thing for sure, Mert's Heart and Soul has soul, but with its variety of hearty Gullah-inspired dishes, Bazzelle said he does not consider it a soul food restaurant.
"I call it low county southern cooking because when you put yourself in one box, it's hard to get out of it," the southern chef said.
Brazzelle's goal to break down barriers and step outside the box is obvious when you step foot in his restaurant. Mert's at-home vibe welcomes people from all walks of life.
"One thing I always wanted was a place where families could come and sit down," he said.
After nearly 21 years in business, Mert's soulful decor, family atmosphere and famous loafed corn bread will keep people walking under the well-lit "Eat" sign at the front door for decades to come.
Mert's Heart and Soul is open Monday- Saturday 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m.– 9:30 p.m.
For more information, visit mertscharlotte.com.
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