As a first-time guest at Herbe Sainte in Aksarben Village, it’s not uncommon to be a little caught off guard when taking your first look at the menu.
Why is the beer, wine, and cocktail list vastly more extensive when compared to the food menu? Well, according to co-owner Justin Halbert, he owns a cocktail bar—not a restaurant.
SamFam, LLC is owned and operated by Justin Halbert and his uncle, Ron Samuelson. After extensive negotiations fell through for two previous concepts, the family business was approached by Noddle Co., the commercial development company that brought Aksarben Village to Omaha. They had an open space, though rather tiny, that big corporations and fast-casual joints were vying for, but Noddle was holding out for something different: a cocktail bar like Herbe Sainte.
Together, they envisioned a place where people could come and enjoy elevated libations in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. With creativity and resourcefulness, they transformed the space into a haven for cocktail enthusiasts, earning a reputation for their high service standards and quality offerings.
Although Herbe Sainte has evolved into a full-blown restaurant, the spirit of a cocktail bar remains at its core. Herbe Sainte prides itself on being a place where patrons can visit without reservations, time constraints, or stringent dress codes.
“We opened our doors in October of 2016, and to this day, we’ve really stayed true to that,” Halbert says.
The vision was to create an environment where guests could feel comfortable, savoring their drinks while receiving the same exceptional service as those dining in for a full meal. This unique approach allows Herbe Sainte to strike a perfect balance between its liquor and food sales, cementing its success in the hospitality industry.
At the time Herbe Sainte opened, cocktail bars were gaining upward momentum in Omaha. Most cocktail bars popping up in the area all drew inspiration from typical New York or Chicago bars, but SamFam wanted to do something different. When you think about drinking in the States, of course, NYC comes to mind, then Kentucky bourbon, but what about Bourbon Street?
New Orleans, renowned for its vibrant cocktail culture, served as the primary inspiration for Herbe Sainte. While none of the founders hailed from the city, they were captivated by its rich heritage and the role of absinthe in its cocktail traditions. Researching New Orleans’ cocktail culture led them to Wormwood, the sacred herb that gives absinthe its character. From there, the name Herbe Sainte emerged, symbolizing the essence of the establishment and its ties to the French Quarter.
On the drink menu, you’ll find eight standard cocktails that are never changing, such as the Hurricane, the Daiquiri, the Absinthe Frappé, Vieux Carré, the Sazerac, and others that gained popularity in the Big Easy.
Furthermore, the menu offers eight seasonal cocktails and a selection of frozen and barrel-aged cocktails that are always rotating. Finally, the decorated bartenders now offer a mocktail menu and enjoy experimenting with new combinations using the non-alcoholic ingredients behind the bar.
Samuelson had culinary experience in the Cajun-Creole realm, and their original chef Jeff Owen did as well, so they took the idea and ran with it.
“The food menu was really just supposed to be gumbo, muffuletta, and a couple of light plates that could satiate people when they were drinking all of the cocktails that we’ve come up with,” Halbert explains.
However, in the first few weeks of opening, one thing became abundantly clear: customers wanted more food. This posed some challenges, as the space—still to this day—does not have the capacity to support a full-service restaurant. Yet, the laborers in the food and beverage industry are some of the most flexible, resourceful individuals out there, and the same is true for the owners of Herbe Sainte.
The team didn’t know what hit them on the first weekend of the hockey season when Baxter Arena brought hundreds of fans to the area, all looking for something to eat before and after the game.
“Friday night, we ran out of food,” Halbert says. “We had to run to the grocery store, just so we had food to serve on Saturday. Saturday night, we ran out again. We just couldn’t keep enough food in the space.”
Eventually, SamFam LLC negotiated a little piece of space in the back hallway and added a wall so they could buy another two-door cooler and a freezer. They also added a platform on top of the restroom core to house all the liquor and any excess storage.
“We jokingly say we use every cubic inch of the space, not every square inch, because we have things stacked to the ceilings,” Halbert laughs.
Seven years after opening, they acquired a space at the very end of the hallway, and for the first time in Herbe Sainte history, the restaurant finally has a walk-in cooler.
As a regular at Herbe Sainte, you’d never expect the back of the house to be so short on space, as the dining room is maximized for comfort and relaxation. Every element of Herbe Sainte’s design and atmosphere has been carefully curated to reflect its New Orleans inspiration.
Mid-century modern furniture, low-slung couches, and aged aesthetics transport guests to a place that feels both nostalgic and contemporary. The rusted beams above and the intentionally weathered walls add to the establishment’s character, giving the impression that it has stood the test of time. The attention to detail and commitment to authenticity have created a unique ambiance that complements the dining and drinking experience.
“At the end of the day, we wanted to provide multiple different atmospheres within one space,” Halbert explains. “We want Herbe Sainte to feel like it could be in New Orleans. We want Herbe Sainte to feel as if it’s been here for a while.”