Heaping Helpings: As pandemic hit, new Artis restaurant in Schenectady persevered and gave back to community

Ja-Dell Whitfield, owner of Artis Southern Cuisine & Steakhouse in Schenectady
Ja-Dell Whitfield, owner of Artis Southern Cuisine & Steakhouse in Schenectady

Right out of the starting gate, Ja-Dell Whitfield wanted his new restaurant to be giving something back to the community in which he grew up.

Artis Southern Cuisine & Steakhouse opened at 1363 Lower Broadway in Schenectady in February 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But rather than fold his hand in the face of the state-ordered indoor dining ban, Whitfield decided to keep cooking. He donated meals, which otherwise might have been for paying customers, to various essential workers throughout Schenectady County.

The Ellis Hospital ICU received free dinners from Artis. So did Mohawk Ambulance; the Schenectady Fire Department; Schenectady’s city trash collectors; and the Kingsway, Glendale and Brookdale nursing homes. Later, Whitfield grilled free chicken for a community festival in Hamilton Hill last Labor Day, and he fed schoolchildren, many of whom weren’t receiving their usual in-school lunches due to school closures.

It wasn’t a pace Whitfield could keep up through the business slowdown of the COVID winter of 2021, but as the pandemic wanes and the restaurant business begins to recover, he plans to start donating again — he thinks it’s important that members of Schenectady’s low-income Black community see role models for entrepreneurship through Black business owners, and for businesses to be “giving back.”

“My philosophy is, growing up I wasn’t able to see African Americans in the position I’ve been in for the last year,” he said. “I want to motivate people to try to give back to the community. It’s not a bad thing to give back, even though you don’t see that much in the inner city.”

‘Positivity and goals’
The 42-year-old Whitfield grew up in and attended schools in the city. His first name is formally Ja-Dell, but even he often spells it Jadel, and there’s a simple explanation: “When I was a kid I got lazy in school, you know what I’m saying?”

As a teenager, Whitfield was a talented enough athlete to be a star running back for Schenectady High School. (He later played semi-pro football). But he ended up going to jail before he could graduate. For a period of time when he was younger, there were burglary, drug and assault charges; he did time in state prison. But once he got out, Whitfield turned his life around.

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The father of six children, ages 15 to 26, wants young people growing up in Schenectady today to know that kind of past can be overcome, with maturity, positivity and determination.

“If you have positivity and set goals, you can be successful,” Whitfield said. “That’s another reason I give back to the community. I don’t want no one making the decisions I made.”

Asked about setting the goals, Whitfield recalls how during a trip to Washington, D.C., years ago, he saw that the city had an entire community of successful middle-class Black business owners, and he viewed them as potential role models.

The opening of Artis was the culmination of many years of of effort, saving money and focusing on the future. “I always wanted to own my own restaurant, for a very long time,” he said.

Family influence
His first exposure to commercial cooking was at age 16, working at Kingsway nursing home in Schenectady. While young, he also worked at high-traffic restaurants such as Garcia’s and the Butcher Block in Colonie, and the Ground Round and Brooklyn Grill in Schenectady. It was an education in the demands of the business.

Meanwhile, Whitfield was also learning Southern cooking skills from his mother, who was raised in South Carolina. (His father came from Georgia, so his Southern roots are deep on both sides.) “My mom was a great cook, and my mom always taught us three boys to cook for themselves,” he said.

Around six years ago, Whitfield began working for the city of Schenectady’s Office of General Services. He saved all the money he could from the job until he had enough to buy a rental property. That generated more income. Then in 2019, he had saved enough money to quit his municipal job and pursue his restaurant dream, and Artis opened its doors in late February of 2020.

The restaurant is named for Whitfield’s father, Artis Whitfield Sr., who died in 1999 at age 51 of AIDS acquired through drug use. “I didn’t want my father’s name to go in vain. He was the biggest supporter in my life until he passed away,” Whitfield said.

Barbecued beef ribs, collard greens, and baked mac and cheese, chicken and waffles, and a 12-ounce strip steak are among the top sellers, but seafood is also featured. Sides include barbecue house staples such as potato salad and baked beans, but also some unusual Southern fare like fried cabbage, coconut rice and beans, and sweet potato casserole. Most reviews have been positive.

“Judging from the variety of items on the menu and the quality of the food we sampled, in time, Artis Southern Cuisine & Steakhouse could quickly become a local treasure,” Gazette restaurant reviewer Beverly Elander wrote last July, after getting takeout.

The restaurant’s culinary philosophy tries to balance keeping food flavorful while also offering healthier choices.

“My approach is I like seasonings, and to have a lot of flavor in my food,” Whitfield said. “I try to serve food that has a lot of flavor, but is more healthy than a lot of what’s offered in the African-American community. With the amount of hypertension in the African-American community, I really try not to use salt.”

In March, the ambitious entrepreneur announced plans on Facebook to open a second location in the village of Catskill, which will be on the waterfront and be more fine dining-oriented, Southern style. It will have enough space to host special events such as weddings and banquets. Whitfield hopes to be ready to open by July at the latest.

Even with the expansion, plans are for the Schenectady restaurant location to remain. “The goal is to grow,” Whitfield said.

The pandemic means Artis is doing mostly takeout, though sit-down is available. For now, Whitfield and his cook are the only employees. The restaurant is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, though hours could be extended if the state’s pandemic restrictions ease, as anticipated.

“Takeout is pretty much how we survive,” Whitfield said. “I’m able to turn the key every day, and that’s my motivation.”

For information, call 518-387-3569.

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