IDAHO FALLS — When Gov. Brad Little first issued his order stating that restaurants needed to close their dining rooms, restaurants were in a bad spot. Many didn’t have a delivery system to fall back on.

“When we saw that COVID-19 was starting to take effect, we knew we needed to find new ways to survive at this time,” Justin Hamilton said.

Hamilton owns Café Sabor with six locations across East Idaho and northern Utah. Catering is a huge part of his business. When events began getting canceled, he suddenly had empty catering vans and drivers with nowhere to go. Hamilton soon came up with the idea to create the Idaho Falls Dining Cooperative.

The Idaho Falls Dining Cooperative offers free delivery to local restaurants. This way, eateries that did not have drivers or delivery vehicles can still get food to their customers through the cooperative platform. Hamilton offers this service at no cost to restaurants. In return, his employees are able to stay working and continue making tips.

“It’s pretty sweet. It’s a great idea. We didn’t have delivery before this,” said Porter Harding, general manager of Pitmaster BarBQue. 

Hamilton had three goals with the cooperative: He wanted to help local businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, keep jobs available for members of the community and give the community access to the local cuisine through free delivery. The Idaho Falls Dining Cooperative does all of this.

“Normally, restaurants are seen as competitive, but it’s cool at this difficult time to see us all come together,” Hamilton said. "Hopefully it creates unity and relationships that can continue after this is all over."

The platform also serves as a place for homebound residents to see what restaurants are open and whether they are offering take-out or delivery.

Currently, the co-op has 18 participating restaurants from Idaho Falls and Ammon. A second cooperative started by Hamilton in Utah, has been even more successful, with 34 participating restaurants.

“We’ve had great support. The world is going to change even post-COVID and what this is teaching us is to have our business models adapt and change,” Hamilton said. "We've learned we can work together to be stronger. I think that’s a pretty cool thing to have come out of all of this."

Café Sabor, which rarely did non-catering deliveries prior to the shutdown, now does between 15 and 20 deliveries a day.

“Without it, I don’t think we’d be making as much money. But Justin got creative in order to allow us to keep on our employees,” said Tailee Crofts, manager of Café Sabor in Idaho Falls.

Hamilton also is motivated by his love of the dining community in East Idaho. It saddens him to think of restaurants having to close their doors for good because of the pandemic.

“Food and local restaurants are a big part of the culture of a community,” Hamilton said. "Whenever someone visits somewhere, one of the first things they ask is ‘where is a good place to eat?’ We don’t want to see that part of our community go away."

Restaurants can go to the website and simply sign up online to participate in the Idaho Falls Dining Cooperative.

Customers can see the full list of participating restaurants at greaterifdining.com.