The making of Mert’s Heart & Soul restaurant, a Lowcountry legend in Charlotte

Charlotte’s culinary customers weren’t interested in what James Bazzelle, the owner of Mert’s Heart & Soul, was offering: “healthy Southern cooking.”

“People came in, saying, ‘Where’s the fried chicken? Where’s the mac-n-cheese?’ ” Bazzelle said.

And that’s why, with the first iteration of the restaurant, he said goodbye to herb-roasted chicken, baked fish and steamed vegetables in favor of fried chicken wings, shrimp po’ boys and cornbread made with mayonnaise.

The pivot worked. And now, 19 years after he and his wife, Renee, tried their hands at restaurateurship, the couple employ more than 30  people and run one of the region’s favorite culinary destinations.

Located at 214 N. College St., Mert’s is popular among the corporate crowd. It’s a must-go for out-of-towners here for concerts, sporting events and conventions. And it’s a celebrity magnet, serving everyone from Broadway stars to Paula Deen to Shaquille O’Neal.

Bazzelle, 57, recently accepted the 2014 Settlers Award from Charlotte Center City Partners, which lauded Mert’s as a “pioneering business that has served Charlotteans and welcomed visitors with great food and warm hospitality.”

Here’s the little-known story behind the local Lowcountry legend:

From line cook to restaurateur

The Bazzelles and their three children moved from Athens, Ga., to Charlotte in 1991. James Bazzelle, who had long dreamed of owning his own restaurant, took a job as a line cook at the Holiday Inn uptown.

He was head chef within two years. He and Renee had a fourth child. And on the side, Bazzelle took free classes on entrepreneurship at the public library, devoured local business news and worked with a nonprofit to develop a business plan for a Southern restaurant with a healthy menu.

He took an unexpected step toward that dream when Holiday Corp., under new management, laid off him and most of the staff, Bazzelle said.

He spent the next year catering meetings and conventions and dreaming of his own space. But his loan applications were routinely rejected by banks.

But in 1995, a year and a half after he was laid off, Self-Help Credit Union gave Bazzelle his first loan.

Snickers bars

The Bazzelles named the restaurant “Ga. on North Tryon,” a tribute to James Bazzelle’s roots and a nod to the location, at the corner of North Tryon and Ninth streets.

Many of their regulars were from the nearby retirement community.

Bazzelle started out with his “healthy Southern cooking” mantra, but he soon found that’s not what his customers wanted. So, sacrificing his original vision, he began serving up what customers requested: fried chicken, blackened pork chops and coleslaw.

Money at home was tight. Bazzelle slept little and worked 363 days a year. Renee was helping at the restaurant and working a second job at a plasma center.

Then Observer business columnist Doug Smith, now retired, wrote about struggling to find a Snickers candy bar after 5:30 p.m. in a deserted uptown.

After reading the story, Bazzelle bought a bunch of Snickers bars and called Smith to tell him he didn’t walk far enough. Bazzelle said Smith laughed and told him he’d never heard of Ga. on North Tryon. He later wrote a column.

A visit from Hugh McColl

The story brought Bazzelle hundreds of new customers. Among them was Hugh McColl, president of NationsBank (now Bank of America). McColl wanted to address a concern Bazzelle mentioned in the piece – that the bank, which was buying up land in the area, would eventually force small-business owners out.

McColl introduced himself and told Bazzelle that NationsBank “didn’t do business like that,” the restaurateur recalled.

McColl became a regular customer.

And in 1998 – three years after Ga. at North Tryon opened – NationsBank approached Bazzelle with a proposition: Would he consider relocating to North College Street in uptown?

The bank wanted to bring more restaurants and storefronts to the area, “trying to make it more like a city,” Bazzelle said.

The spot, mere feet from the Holiday Inn where Bazzelle used to work, was between Fifth and Sixth streets.

Bazzelle was hesitant. Tryon Street was the city’s main strip. College Street was an afterthought. Plus, using the name Ga. on North Tryon wouldn’t make sense at any other location.

But Renee Bazzelle reminded him that McColl had a vision for the city and the influence to make it happen. They needed to be a part of that.

“All James ever needed was a chance, and this was his chance,” Renee Bazzelle said. “I said, ‘We should do this. We’re going to do this.’ ”

Changing the sign

NationsBank loaned Bazzelle the money to revamp the 2,300-square-foot space. One wall had a mural of the (largely barren)Charlotte skyline in the ’80s, commissioned by the previous tenant.

Bazzelle saw this move as an opportunity to give the restaurant a clearer identity. He wanted it to be more than the “whatever Southern food you request, we’ll add it to the menu” business model. He decided to focus on the Gullah-inspired, Lowcountry southern cooking you’d find in Charleston.

He also decided to fill the menu with items you wouldn’t find at other local soul-food spots.

So in lieu of crab cakes, Bazzelle served salmon cakes. Instead of cornbread slices, he offered mini cornbread loaves.

He planned a grits-eating contest for the grand opening.

NationsBank arranged for an interior decorator to reinvent the place for free, and the firm injected the space with panache – warm reds, citrus yellows, purple accents, even multicolored tiles on the floor.

But the Bazzelles didn’t think of a new name for the restaurant until they sat down to design the new sign.

“The designer guy threw in ‘Heart & Soul’ ” as filler text, Bazzelle recalled. He liked the sound of it.

But the name needed something else.

Then Bazzelle remembered one of his favorite customers at Ga. on North Tryon, Myrtle Lockhart. She lived in the nearby retirement community and passed away before she could experience his newest culinary adventure.

Bazzelle turned to the designer and said: ‘Add Mert’s.’ ”