Eating Your Way Through Omaha with Nebraska Tour Co.Oct 01, 2021 01:36PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
People stand on a corner. A stranger arrives, whisking the group off on a gastronomical walkabout where they visit multiple restaurants and enjoy food, wine, and informative conversation. It’s a unique night they’ll remember, one unlike any other taking place in Omaha.
That’s thanks to Nebraska Tour Co., the brainchild of Alan Rust. The mission is simple: connect people to Omaha’s community through the cultural touchstones of food and history. Hosts who are knowledgeable and passionate about the city lead the custom tours and take pride in sharing their expertise with their guests.
Rust, 57, arrived in Omaha five years ago when he relocated from Houston to accept a job at Gordmans, an ill-timed decision given the company’s pending bankruptcy. Since he had spent time in Omaha before and enjoyed living here, when his Gordmans job ended, he took to driving an Uber rather than leave the city.
A natural raconteur, Rust enjoyed sharing his inside knowledge of Omaha with out-of-town guests, pointing out local history and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. He’s the kind of guy who knows the best breweries and distinctive restaurants and makes it a point to know the chefs and the waitstaff. “It was always my mission,” Rust said. “In my retail career I had moved around so much that I had a lot of experience introducing myself to new cities, and I liked to find unique things. When I was driving someone around for Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting, I shared what I knew, and one of my passengers told me I should start a tour business.”
In 2017, he took that advice and, along with friend Dakotah Smith, acquired Discover Omaha, which had focused on history tours. The duo rebranded it as the American Tour Co., known in Omaha as the Nebraska Tour Co. They immediately added culinary tours to the lineup. “We saw the value in the business, so [we] changed the name and added food to history,” Rust explained. Now the sole owner, he also operates in Des Moines, St. Louis, Denver, and Kansas City.
The tours, which are offered Tuesday through Saturday, often take place in the Old Market and Blackstone districts, where guests can walk from place to place. Chauffeured tours in luxury vehicles and in other areas throughout Omaha are also an option. Food tastings are included at each restaurant, typically three or four, with an adult beverage included gratis at the first stop. Experiences are built around a simple, yet specific, checklist: great food, fresh menus, updated ambiance, and great service.
“First, I have to test and judge the experience on my own,” Rust said. “If the menu never changes and the service isn’t great, it’s not the kind of experience we’re looking for.”
Typically, a chef provides what they want to present to the groups, so options might include tasting plates, charcuterie, or small steak or fish plates. “The chefs can showcase what they want,” Rust said of the opportunity to create something special that isn’t available to the general public.
In between stops, hosts guide their guests through the neighborhood, revealing local history along the way. Above all, Rust looks for good storytellers who are familiar with the local restaurant scene when it comes to hiring his team.
Since the restaurant lineup is subject to availability and change, patrons never know where they’re going until they meet their host. “It’s based on the day and the size of the group,” Rust explained. A group can be as small as just two people and go as high as 200.
“We also try to do seasonal tours, so it’s always changing,” he added. Examples include chocolate and champagne tours timed with Valentine’s Day or appetizers and cocktails for the holidays. “We can do a theme that matches a request if we have the partners.”
The tours have proven beneficial to local restaurant owners. Sagar Gurung runs Kathmandu Momo Station in the Blackstone District and at Aksarben Village’s Inner Rail food court. They specialize in momos, Nepalese dumplings stuffed with chicken, pork, or vegetables and accompanied by different dipping sauces. He has known Rust for about three years, from when the latter first started frequenting his Blackstone locale.
“I provide a very unique product which is very new to our Omaha community,” Gurung said. “We are highly dependent on word-of-mouth, so it’s very cool that he brings his guests here. They become goodwill ambassadors.”
The restaurateur said that the tours place value on his product because Rust is what he considers a true “food curator,” which means that the five people who attend a tour one night tend to come back within a week with friends. And those friends in turn return and bring their friends. “It feels like he’s doing a service for us. For me as a vendor, it’s a win every time. I’m grateful for the exposure, because we’re small and don’t do marketing.”
Given the unique culinary experiences, Rust’s tours are popular with individuals and businesses alike. Fortunately, Nebraska Tour Co. survived COVID-19 thanks to the history walking tours, and corporate interest is helping the culinary tours rebound quickly. “We’re doing a lot of corporate outings,” Rust said. “People want to reintroduce teams to each other face-to-face after a year and a half on Zoom. The tours are like business field trips.” One recent gastronomy tour saw executives stay in the same restaurant while team members rotated from place to place so everyone could spend some valuable casual time with their managers.
Aaron Sibson, a credit analyst with Farm Credit Services of America, started taking culinary tours with his company this past summer and said they keep coworkers connected via food. “We were looking for something to get [us] out of the office,” he said. “We saw this online and thought it was a good opportunity to go places that we ordinarily would not go.”
Sibson and his colleagues did a walking tour of the Blackstone District that included the Cottonwood Hotel, Kathmandu Momo Station, and a couple of breweries. They spent around 45 minutes to an hour at each destination. Their host met them at the hotel and shared fun information, such as the fact that the famed Reuben sandwich was first introduced at the hotel, and a painting in the bar includes secret QR codes. “These were things you [might not] know if you just walked in on your own,” Sibson said.
Throughout the tour, the group sampled a Reuben, appetizers, homemade pretzels, and momos. Tables were ready when they arrived, with food brought out immediately. In between stops, the host guided them through Blackstone, pointing out public art and sharing details about the historic neighborhood.
At the time of this article, Sibson’s company was booking its second tour. “We got to go to places we wouldn’t even have thought to eat at, like the Cottonwood and the Momo Station. We got to see a few different restaurants without sitting in one place all night,” enthused the credit analyst. “Usually, when you go someplace, you just eat and leave. It was such great ease of use—and really, really enjoyable!”
For more information, visit nebraskatourcompany.com or follow them on Facebook.