For nearly six decades, guests at Houma’s A-Bear’s Café were greeted by a woman whose deep brown eyes peered from behind silver spectacles, silver-gray hair simply coiffed, her welcome warm while at the same time strictly business.
Jane Hebert, who along with her family’s restaurant became a Houma icon, died peacefully at her home Friday at age 79 after six months of declining health. She had looked forward that day to having someone bring her a plate of the restaurant’s signature shrimp stew, a favorite of so many who passed through the restaurant's doors, confident they would be dining on some of the most authentic Cajun dishes to be had in Terrebonne Parish.
“She loved everybody who walked in and out of those doors like they were her family,” said her daughter, Ginger Hebert. “She was hard as a rock, but she was stubborn as an ox and was good to everybody.”
Born Jane Marie Breaux in 1943 to a hardscrabble farming family, she began working front-of-house while the son of a family close to her own, Albert “Curly” Hebert, created classic local concoctions, in the kitchen of the restaurant he opened in 1963. They married just over a year later, creating a business and family partnership that lasted until Curly’s passing in 2017.
The couple turned A-Bear’s, at 809 Bayou Black Drive in the shadow of the Houma electric plant, into the longest-operating restaurant in the community. The small, wood-frame building that houses the restaurant was built in 1922 and still has the original plank walls, ceiling and flooring.
Jane's station was at the cash register, but she would often circulate among diners as she could, placing her hands on the backs of their chairs and asking how they were doing.
Back when the restaurant served breakfast, relatives said, Jane took great pride in the enormous fresh biscuits she served. But the coming of the nearby McDonald’s on Barrow Street resulted in too much breakfast competition and the early hours were eliminated.
Even so, the restaurant withstood the onslaught of chain eateries that sprouted up along the Terrebonne landscape, knocking out small family dining places one by one over the years.
After Curly’s death, Ginger took her place running the kitchen, with her stalwart mother maintaining her place near the doorway. A visit to A-Bear’s, diners said, was not just a stop into a restaurant but a call on beloved folk who were just about like family.
The strong partnership of Curly and Jane, relatives said, got the restaurant through the oil industry crash of the 1980s, and Jane’s firm hand along with a lot of family support ensured its survival through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In later years she took great comfort in the company of her beloved canine, a Maltipoo named Jake, whom she referred to as “my little boy.”
Jane’s approach to greeting and serving was granted even-handedly to customers, whether the late Gov. Edwin Edwards, oilfield roughnecks or local judges and politicians. Some of the café's better-known customers over the years have included New Orleans music icon Harry Connick Sr. , Ms. Lucy from the PBS Cajun Cooking Show and the late soul singer Percy Sledge.
Terrebonne Parish President Gordy Dove said he will miss Jane, adding that he is a big fan of the restaurant. Like other patrons, Dove found it difficult to speak her without also praising the establishment she and her late spouse built.
“I have been there frequently over the decades and love the food and the ambience,” Dove said. “It’s a great old building and the food is good, it’s a Terrebonne tradition.”
Partial to the restaurant’s chicken fried steak, Dove said that when he stopped in, Jane constantly and consistently asked about flood protection plans for her neighborhood in Bayou Black, which suffered wash-ins from the Chacahoula Basin.
“She would tell me something’s got to be done, and to be honest, her talking to me made me push harder and harder for a solution,” Dove said. “She was always firm but also polite.”
When the parish did groundbreaking for the Hanson Canal Pump Station, designed to correct the source of Jane’s concerns, Dove said he made sure that she was on the guest list.
Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Tim Soignet also dined at A-Bear’s occasionally and was saddened to hear of Jane's passing.
“She was always pleasant and smiling, always nice and telling us to come back,” Soignet said “She will be greatly missed.”
Jane’s granddaughter, Ashley Hirtle, had a close relationship with Jane, whom she described as “very old school, very set in her ways,” which she said was a good thing.
“She treated everybody like family because that’s how she expected to be treated,” Hirtle said. “She lived by the Golden Rule: Treat people how you wish to be treated.”
She and Ginger Hebert said they will do everything they can to keep Jane’s legacy alive and the restaurant thriving.
A visitation in her honor will be held from 8 a.m. to service time Tuesday in the Chapel Magnolia of Chauvin Funeral Home, 5899 La. 311 in Houma. A religious service will begin at 1 p.m., with interment to follow in the St. Francis de Sales Cemetery No. 2 mausoleum.
This article originally appeared on The Courier: Remembering Houma restaurant owner Jane Hebert, who died Friday at 79