Little Bridge Marina back on track

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The view from Little Bridge Marina’s updated patio showcases the river for diners to enjoy, extending seating outdoors.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

A favorite riverfront gem is back in business and charting an exciting new course. After weathering a squall of challenges during the previous year, Little Bridge Marina celebrated its reopening on Saturday, April 10, welcoming guests to embark on a different adventure – still rooted in the same beloved service to its community, while gazing ahead toward the brightness emerging on the horizon.

2020 sent its share of obstacles Little Bridge’s way, with the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in early March resulting in the restaurant’s temporary closure. Despite the difficulty, Little Bridge maintained its resolute values of premium customer service and adapted to its community’s needs, offering curbside pick-ups and following government regulations to ensure the health and safety of all its guests.

As the restaurant maneuvered the pandemic, October proved a true test of its resiliency, when a catastrophic fire destroyed the property. Owners Craig Inzer Jr. and Curt Vezertzis commended the fire departments of Whorton Bend, Rainbow City, Glencoe and Southside who battled the ferocious flames for hours. Though the restaurant’s structure proved an irrevocable loss, the persistent spirit that first inspired Little Bridge’s inception remained unscathed, with its owners outlining a blueprint for its return in no time at all.

Rather than rebuild atop the same foundation, Inzer and Vezertzis settled on an alternate approach. When customers return to Little Bridge after its six-month hiatus, they will discover a modern and pristine restaurant housed in the neighboring event space (the former Tracy J’s showroom), just a short walk from where the original hole-in-a-wall bait shack once stood.

The renovated building nearly triples the size of the restaurant’s former home, harboring room for 75 indoor diners and expanding its seating outdoors to house around 200 guests. Large windows decorate the walls, allowing guests to enjoy the sunshine alongside their meal and glimpse pleasant views of nature just mere steps away. A spacious patio provides visitors who prefer eating outdoors in the breeze with a beautiful scene of the riverfront, complete with sun sails to shade guests directly overlooking the water.

“We have, in my opinion, the best view of any restaurant in town,” said Inzer. “You can look all the way to Riddles Bend and the end of Southside from Cedar Bend Road.”

As with the original restaurant, easy access for boaters remains a priority. Inzer noted that gas pumps with card readers are arriving hopefully within upcoming weeks, offering boaters one of the few places in Etowah County to refill seven days a week. Inspired by a blend of Inzer’s business mindset and Vezertzis’s Greek heritage and outstanding eye for food, an updated menu culminates Little Bridge’s facelift. Inzer shared that while an emphasis on taste is essential, the restaurant is focusing more on homemade consistency regarding its recipes.

The restaurant features a new selection of delicious wraps, homemade pimento cheese, fresh salads and St. Louis ribs alongside its cherished daily specials and traditional staples. For those seeking something to satisfy their sweet tooth, Little Bridge provides a plethora of pies, from peanut butter and fudge, to strawberry and banana cream.

“[The new restaurant] has been well received, which is the nice thing,” said Inzer. “You never know until you open. When you see that line getting built up, it’s not anxiety [you feel], you know it’s working. These people like it, this person has been here three days this week. That part to me is the part I enjoy – I like seeing people happy. When I go somewhere to eat and it’s good, I try to tip the waitress and tell somebody I enjoy the place, that the service is good. I think you get a lot more of that in a small town.”

The flood of encouragement from the community that uplifted Inzer and Vezertzis throughout the renovation and still resides today mirrors the initial support the pair received seven years ago, when a coincidence created history. Longtime friends, Inzer and Vezertis spent their childhoods on the river, enjoying the recreation and beauty of Neely Henry Lake and the Coosa. When Vezertis began searching for a project that encompassed his appreciation of Etowah County’s prime natural resource, he invited Inzer to join him.

That project culminated in the old marina and Tracy J’s Cycle shop property at 70 Whorton Bend Road, the former a fixer-upper that sat vacant for years. While Vezertis and Inzer purchased the property with the intention of renting out the space, as they dove into renovations, their vision shifted when they experienced an outpouring of feedback from the public.

“As we were redoing it, people [would come up] asking for gas, drinks, cokes – anything,” said Inzer. “It was the last day of RiverFest in 2014. We filled the gas pump up and we said we were just going to give away food if you buy gas. We filled up every boat known to man for RiverFest, gave away all this food and everybody was thinking we were going into business. The next day, the phone just started ringing. People asked, ‘Do y’all have more BBQ? Are you going to open?’ One night, we finally looked at each other and said, ‘If it’s this busy, why don’t we open a restaurant?’”

A surge of success followed Little Bridge’s inception, garnering the attention of the community that first sparked its arrival. While the new restaurant’s pristine design and modern amenities differ from the rustic charm of the original, its atmosphere still harbors the welcoming inclusivity upon which it first built its foundation. A true fusion of land and water, Little Bridge caters to boaters and diners of all ages, from the working professional grabbing a bite on their lunch break to the retired couple enjoying a day of leisure on the water.

Live music and Southern hospitality invite guests to abandon their worries and experience the fun and relaxed environment Little Bridge promotes. Inzer noted that as the business flourished, one of its main accomplishments became efficient and responsive customer service, providing visitors with delicious meals in a timely manner. He hopes to have the grill open soon, creating a family-friendly space where parents, children and friends can socialize with ease.

“The atmosphere was something local – laid-back and inviting,” said Inzer. “Curt [Vezertzis] and I were there every day…we still are at some point. We wanted to provide the boaters with their essential needs and provide the Whorton Bend community with something. In the old building, you could come in with your life jacket on and your bathing suit and it’s not a big deal. Judges used to come in one door in a suit and tie, and there would be two people just on a jet ski dripping water [beside them] and nobody had a problem with it. [With the new restaurant there are] a lot of changes, but changes for the better. It’s the same service and same attitude [as before].”

Inzer applauded his employees, several who have remained with Little Bridge since the beginning and proved instrumental in assisting with renovations while maintaining that friendly and hospitable nature the restaurant fosters. He noted since the fire, he kept six staff members on payroll.

“Being a small business, we felt it was the right thing to do,” said Inzer. “We knew we were going to need help and the people who had been with us through the ups and downs, I didn’t want them to just go somewhere else. We wanted them to stay with us and they wanted to stay. We made it work and they’re with me today. They’re some of the key backbone [of Little Bridge]. I feel good about who is in my kitchen, who is being the face of the front when I’m not there.”

As Little Bridge encourages a seamless blend of worlds among its guests, with suited men standing alongside dripping-wet jet skiers, Inzer himself mirrors a culmination of responsibilities that coincide. A people-person by nature, while Inzer strives to operate Little Bridge, he also serves his community as Etowah County Commissioner for District 6.

Though Inzer’s background is in marketing and sales, he hails from an impressive lineage of entrepreneurs and community-minded individuals. His father owned an electrical contracting business and worked at the steel plant, while his mother operated a women’s dress store for 23 years. While Inzer’s childhood was enriched with an appreciation for small business owners, his grandmother enlightened him to his family’s political history. Inzer’s great-grandfather, James Clarence Inzer, served as a member of the Etowah County Board of Education, Senator from the 6th Senatorial District of the state from 1923 to 1927 and as the Lieutenant Governor of Alabama from 1947 to 1951. His grandmother’s stories intrigued Inzer, who thought though no one else in his family had served politically since his great-grandfather, maybe he could take up the mantle.

Despite his interest, it was Little Bridge that served as the true catalyst for Inzer’s position as commissioner.

“Little Bridge is the reason I’m in politics,” said Inzer. “The main reason I ran for county commission when I was opening Little Bridge is I wanted the county and state to make it easier for people to go into business. I understand there are rules and I understand you’ve got to have formality, but I want to make it easier for people. I’m a small business minded person. They correlate a lot – small business and county commission.”

Inzer’s dedication to Little Bridge parallels his commitment to Etowah County. Just as he often enters the restaurant with the mindset of assistance, communicating with his employees and tackling daily tasks, he remains attentive of his district and cognizant of its needs in relation to the county overall. He and his wife drive District 6 regularly, recognizing areas of concern and developing the best methods to evoke positive change.

“It’s about being observant for me and trying to see what the needs are,” said Inzer. “It’s made me think differently, broader than what’s at hand sometimes. I try to think big in a lot of ways, [considering] what is best for the county as a whole, what makes the most sense for everybody.”

Inzer shared his position at Little Bridge makes him more accessible to the public. He frequently switches from role to role, listening to questions from community members regarding the commission, while recommending the best side dish for a customer. A current issue he is striving to resolve is the intersection on Alabama 77 at Whorton Bend Road and Lakeshore Drive, just fingertips from Little Bridge. The intersection has proved a danger throughout the years and in recent months, with several wrecks occurring and resulting in hospitalizations.

“You have to take into consideration this is best for the business, which correlates to what is best for the community, District 6 and the county,” said Inzer. “Every day I go to work at Little Bridge, I have a commission question, a commission concern or something that I leave the restaurant to go do for the commission. I put on my commissioner hat, I’m out there directing traffic and helping. Then, I go meet with state [representatives] in the restaurant world, who come to eat lunch and try to get a plan to fix the problem.”

Inzer commended both his district and his fellow commissioners, who all value his emphasis on unity, involvement and encouraging one another. He reflected on moments like Whorton Bend’s cleanup day, when the community came together to serve one another and better their home. Inzer shared that the community remains in the right mindset alongside the commissioners, who he considers individuals who care for their own districts while assessing the best outcome for the county as a whole.

“It’s worked together well – the continuity of Curt and I and the continuity of the commission,” said Inzer. “I’ve learned a lot in three years on the commission. We have a good group of commissioners that are working together. I hope some of the things we’re working on will come to fruition and be very beneficial to the whole community. The commission is a small business; you’ve got six people making decisions for 105,000 people. The one thing I strive and work every day on, in working with city and county leaders, is I’m huge on working together. You blend all that together – county commission and restaurant – and you see we have to be on the same page at the restaurant just like we do at the county. It’s different agendas, making a good sandwich or getting a large employer [but] it’s providing for the community.”

The camaraderie Inzer fosters and the cohesion he nurtures emerge as evidence of his mission to influence others for the better, to create a resolute and positive impact on the county he calls home. Whether his service arises in greeting familiar faces at Little Bridge Marina or advocating for the safety of his constituents as commissioner, Inzer stands alongside likeminded individuals striving to do the same. His partnership with Vezertzis and the reopening of Little Bridge symbolize the resiliency of the people of Etowah County, who transform ideas into realities and prove no storm is too fierce to persevere.

“I truly like the fact that I feel like Curt and I built something that is sustainable for our riverfront,” said Inzer. “We are providing for the community. I feel that because of Little Bridge, people have bought boats and are enjoying our natural resource maybe more than they had before. I hope they enjoy the river and getting to look at the beauty of nature, then when they leave, they think, ‘I’d like to have a boat and I’ll buy one locally.’ Then, I’ve just made someone else money and the county money – that’s kind of the whole circle. I enjoy the people coming in and the conversation, whether it’s the table of older men or ladies enjoying themselves. I enjoy providing an atmosphere they like. I enjoy the fact that we’ve made something that we wanted when we were on the river.”

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