CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - When James Bazzelle opened Mert’s in 1998, it took him time to readily call the heart of the city uptown instead of downtown.
“It threw me for a loop because being a boy from Georgia, we go downtown,” he recalled, laughing. “I mean okay - I mean it took me a long time to learn to say uptown. And that day when we opened up, we sold out of food. We didn’t have enough food. That was back in the day when we only did lunch, remember? There was no dinner business. We weren’t a destination. Where you worked at is where you eat at. And that’s what we were -- at first."
Fast forward a couple of decades and not only has the Queen City become a destination - so has Mert’s.
“For so many people to know about us - I mean from all over the world know about us,” he said. “London, New York – people wear our shirts everywhere. The popularity of Mert’s just overwhelms me. It’s mind-blowing.
That includes some pretty famous faces: comedian and actor Kevin Hart, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, pop diva Mariah Carey, rock band Foo Fighters and Charlotte’s own Grammy-winning R&B singer, Anthony Hamilton just to name a few.
“We fed Obama one time,” Bazzelle recalled. “The White House rather. I didn’t get to feed him. They only sent two people. We fed Michelle. We had, ah, Hillary. She was here.”
All drawn to his legendary southern cuisine – including his mouth-watering collard greens.
“We get fresh greens every day,” he said. “Mostly out of South Carolina. And we cook maybe four dozen a day. The greens we're cooking now - they're really for tomorrow. We cook a day ahead and the next day we use them.”
But that’s not their most popular item. “Our cornbread is our biggest association with everybody that comes into the city,” he said. “Our cornbread is our number one seller. Fried chicken, number two. And one of my favorites is the salmon cakes.”
But those southern staples weren't always on the menu.
When he first started, his goal was healthy southern cooking.
“I had no fried food,” he said. “No macaroni and cheese. I took whole chicken and roasted them. I roasted all my vegetables. You know, all this stuff I learned. And the guys come in -construction workers at lunchtime - ‘man, where the fried chicken at?’”
Just don’t call it soul food. It’s a label he balks at, saying it boxes him in.
“It puts you in a narrow box,” he said. “I don't need my box narrow - I need my box wide. I need to have the opportunity to get as much as possible. Don't put me in a little box and say it's just this. Soul food is southern food. It's not just black people, white people eat that same stuff. You know, they maybe don't fry as much chicken as we do but they eat the same thing.”
Oh, and here’s a pro tip for you: Mert’s also serves brunch on Saturday and Sundays starting at 9 a.m.
When asked if that’s the city’s best kept secret – Bazzelle laughed and said, “No, the best kept secret is that we validate parking in the back when you come down.“