Mert’s Voyage

jamesboxThe vision for Mert’s Heart and Soul was birthed decades before the restaurant opened in July 1998. “Mert’s,” as it’s known  throughout Charlotte, began when after finishing a less than desirable summer job in a factory, owner James Bazzelle vowed to a friend that he would “never work in a factory again.” Still in the 10th grade, James promised his friend that, “One day, you’re going to see my name in lights and on TV. James Bazzelle with 2-z’s, 2-e’s, and 2-l’s.” 

Although his name is not “in lights” at Mert’s, James’ vision, drive, and passion are entwined throughout the eatery, which has received countless accolades from the Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing, Charlotte Magazine, the Charlotte Business Journal, and other prominent media outlets in the Charlotte-metro area and beyond. In short, James, and his wife of more than 25 years, Renee’, have worked tirelessly to catapult Mert’s to one of the premier restaurants in Charlotte. 

Acclaimed for its stellar service and artistic, soulful décor, Mert’s culinary foundation fuses a wide-array of Low Country, Gullah-inspired dishes that awaken new taste buds with every bite. Shrimp and grits, Charleston red rice, soft shell crab, fried catfish, and award-winning macaroni and cheese are just a few of the items on Mert’s expansive menu. All of the menu items at Mert’s are created by James, who in addition to being Owner/Founder, also serves the restaurant as Executive Chef. 

A native of Athens, Georgia, it was by chance that James found his gift for culinary arts. “When I was in the 11th grade, a friend and I decided to take a home economics course so that we could be in a class full of girls and food,” recalls James. “Cooking grabbed my attention more than the girls and I became the best cook in my class.” James used the class as a catalyst to shape his newfound talent at the Vocational College of Athens, where he earned an Associate’s Degree in Food Service Management. 

With degree in hand and a passion to serve, James pursued opportunities in food service. In 1979, he met future wife Renee’ and in 1991, they relocated to Charlotte. Upon arriving in Charlotte, James worked at the Holiday Inn in Uptown and was quickly promoted to Executive Chef. He successfully continued in this role until a pink slip and the death of his mother unexpectedly placed him at a crossroads. “It was a pivotal time for me and Renee’,” said James. “It was at that time that we decided to go into business for ourselves.” The couple started G.A. Catering, which began the path to Mert’s Heart and Soul. 

The road to self-employment was not without its setbacks. The couple struggled for months to secure funding for their new venture. “We got turned down for loans left and right,” said James. “Finally, Self-Help Credit Union approved us and we opened Ga. On Tryon in 1996.” 

Following its opening, G.A. on Tryon quickly became a community favorite because of its delicious down-home cooking. One person in particular who was impressed with James’ culinary and entrepreneurial gifts was (then) Bank of America Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Hugh McColl, Jr. He helped the Bazzelles secure Mert’s current location on College Street. 

“With the new location came a new name, ‘Mert’s Heart and Soul,’ named in honor of Mertle Lockhart. She was our most loyal customer at G.A. on Tryon,” said James. “She died before our grand opening but we celebrated that day in her honor with her children.” 

The new era at Mert’s also brought with it an expanded menu that incorporated not only traditional soul food, but Low Country and Gullah favorites like shrimp and grits, shrimp Creole, and Charleston red rice. According to James, the new dishes placed Mert’s in a class of its own. 

“I wanted a restaurant and menu that was different from anything else on the market,” said James. “When we introduced the new menu it was a hit and has fueled our success ever since.” 

Now that Mert’s has past the 10-year mark, the Bazzelles have plans to grow the Mert’s brand to include restaurants throughout Charlotte. No matter the location, the Bazzelles want to stick with what they do best – serving food and serving people. 

“I’m honored that people still take the time to visit my restaurant after all these years,” said James. “Of all the places to eat in Charlotte, they keep coming back to Mert’s. I’m going to make sure to give them my best every time they walk through the door.”