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Omaha Magazine

Serving With Heart: The Journey that Brought Herbe Sainte's Justin Halbert Home

Apr 29, 2021 03:46PM ● By Sara Locke
Justin Halbert in Herbe Sainte bar area

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

When considering the thoughtful, daring, complex touches at Herbe Sainte, one would assume that the mind behind the popular restaurant knows what makes life truly delicious. Everything from the sourcing to the plating has a purpose, and intention can be found in the smallest details. The architect of these experiences, Justin Halbert, sees his work as an opportunity to share what he loves most about life, and to bring a little of the great big world to the city he loves.

While Omaha is where Halbert was born, and where he applies his knowledge of restaurants and recipes, his story takes a more nomadic theme. It crosses oceans, and proves that home is wherever compassion drives you.

The Legacy

Halbert reflected on his upbringing and the example his parents set for him. “From a very young age, they included us in activities like feeding the hungry, and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. The focus was always on giving back as much as we could from ourselves. These were truly some of my most loved childhood memories, just finding a way to be of service. My parents showed us every day how easily we could make a difference.”

They also set the precedent that wherever you were, and wherever you were needed, you were home. They raised their children to believe that one doesn’t need deep roots to grow strong, and had moved seven times before Halbert graduated high school.

Education Beyond Academics

Tragically losing his mother as a teenager forced Halbert to consider what kind of life he wanted, and what would have made her proud. “I was 17 when I lost my mom, and that became a catalyst.”

Halbert attended the University of Florida, but found himself directionless. “I was good at math and certain subjects, but couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted from college. Nothing was sticking. My sophomore year I decided to leave school,” he said. 

Not knowing where his path would lead, Halbert began to reflect on the times he felt he was in the right place. “Falling back on the things I had loved about my life, the two things that formed who I was as a person were travel and service.”

Halbert joined the Peace Corps, traveling overseas to put everything his parents taught him into practice. 

Planting Seeds

“So much of how I manage has to do with what I learned and how I was treated in the Peace Corps,” he said. “The way they communicate and assess your skills allows each person to flourish, and to offer exactly what they’re best at for the best outcome.”

Halbert has no regrets from his college experience. “You’re funneled into occupations or missions based on your degree. I’d gone to school with the goal of becoming a teacher,” he said. “My mom was a teacher, so I had an affinity for the work. Because of that education, I was assigned a language mission.”

That assignment resulted in a profound encounter for Halbert, which only fueled his belief that he was exactly where he needed to be.

“In Romania, one of my host family’s neighbors invited me to come see the kindergarten where she taught. The shock of seeing the facility with no working heater, broken windows, a door that doesn’t close…these kids are in this really untenable situation in coats and gloves trying to learn. I let her guide me to the triage of need, what was most important to help her teach effectively.”

Halbert immediately began a fundraising campaign, enlisting his father’s help. “The generosity of people back home, collecting donations...my father’s religious group held a fundraiser," he said. "We raised around $7,000. That’s doing five to 10 times the work in Romania.”

Soon they were using the money to hire local workers to make repairs and improve the safety, functionality, and accessibility of the school. 

The Way Back

Halbert took the scenic route back to Nebraska, spending time in San Diego working with foster youth. “When I got home, I wanted to continue that work.” He interviewed at Boys Town, but Nebraska doesn’t recognize Peace Corps credits. “I would have had to go back to a master’s program to be able to teach,” he said. “I already knew college wasn’t for me, and I started to feel a little dejected. I called my Uncle Ron and told him I wanted advice about owning my own restaurant, and he told me to get a job at a national chain bussing tables.”

Halbert’s “Uncle Ron” is Ron Samuelson, former M’s Pub partner and local restaurateur.  The two would later start SamFam Restaurant Group, along with Halbert’s brother, Aaron. 

“It’s true, I told him to start at the very bottom, and not a mom-and-pop place,” Samuelson said. “Of course the goal was to own his own place, but to start with an established chain means learning from all of the processes they put into place that are universally working. Once you learn why the rules are there, you can learn which ones are OK to break in your own place.”

Halbert applied to bus tables at a nearby P.F. Chang’s. 

“I learned every position at that restaurant,” he said. When he realized he was getting passed over for promotions, he left to work at Kona Grill. 

“Sally Stoakes was my manager…She wanted to get the absolute most out of everyone, to see them succeed.”

This echoing of his experience in the Peace Corps galvanized Halbert’s belief that this was a universally adaptable behavior. That everyone deserved an environment that prepared, encouraged, and allowed them to succeed. 

Samuelson credits this approach with Halbert’s ability to attract and maintain great people for their business. “With his youth and his energy, his ability to learn and apply knowledge quickly, there was no way he wasn’t going to be a great business owner. He has such a big heart, and such a brain for business acumen and numbers," he said. "I feel very lucky to have him in my life not only professionally, but personally. He’s a great businessman, but he’s also just a great man.”

Diners can judge the results of Halbert’s work for themselves with a visit to Herbe Sainte. The attention to atmosphere ensures a familial, festive experience among a staff who truly seem enthusiastic to be providing it. The exceptional menu is focused, but adventurous, and the cocktails are as inventive as they are generous. Prepare for a New Orleans-style night.

Visit herbesainteomaha.com for more information. 

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.