CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Charlotte business owner said the only solution to his less-than-robust lunch hours these days would be a mandatory return to offices.
“Mandatory — being required to come back to the offices, you know, other than people living Uptown, which we need,” said James Bazzelle, the owner of Mert’s Heart and Soul.
The Uptown lunch spot celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, but Bazzelle said after decades of growth, the restaurant’s business has not returned after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m pretty sure we fell off like 30 to 40% of regulars,” Bazzelle guessed.
Back at the start 25 years ago, Bazzelle said his restaurant grew steadily in the following decades, as Charlotte grew around it.
“We transitioned to dinner hours. Later on, as more people started coming, more buildings got built, more office employees. The buildings got built, add more shows and nightlife entertainment increased,” Bazzelle recalled.
Now, the high-rises dotting Charlotte’s skyline are emptier than ever, as a major commercial and industrial real estate company reported Charlotte had the highest levels of office vacancy in its recorded history.
“Vacancy in the market eclipsed 20% for the first time on record last quarter with vacancies highly concentrated in a subset of buildings that have fallen out of favor with prospective tenants,” JLL wrote in its Charlotte Office Insight Quarter 1 report. “Vacancy hit an all-time high last quarter, but vacant space is highly concentrated in a subset of assets.”
Surrounded by soaring hotels, apartments and office buildings, Bazzelle said he can tell work-life in Uptown has not returned to normal.
“Lunch business has not came back,” he said. “You know, they say they’re bringing people back to the offices? But to me, they only bring them back two or three days a week.”
JLL’s report states Charlotte’s office vacancy rate is hovering at just more than 20%, roughly double where it was in 2013. At the same time, rent rates per square foot also roughly doubled.
“Though Uptown has garnered the most attention in this regard, suburban submarkets such as Park Road, Southeast Charlotte and Highway 51/Ballantyne are not immune and contributing to rising vacancy rates,” the report states.
At Mert’s, Bazzelle said you can usually tell the day of the week based on the lunch crowd.
“Monday they come back, we’re not super busy for lunch. And then Tuesday and Wednesday we’re busier,” Bazzelle said, before customer numbers fall off again on Thursdays and Fridays.
While vacancy rates are at an all-time recorded high, JLL noted the amount of future office space under development is at its lowest total since 2017. Additionally, JLL wrote office space under construction shrunk 1.2 million square feet since a recent peak in 2022.
Banking and finance companies accounted for more than 70% of the office space returned to the market, according to JLL.
“Ain’t hardly nobody working today,” Bazzelle said, noting it was a Friday in Uptown.