The nation’s largest online retailer is dipping its virtual toe in the bistro waters by expanding its Amazon Fresh delivery service to include restaurants. Seattle Spotlight, a program that delivers items from dozens of local gourmet shops and restaurants to consumers, was started last year.

The original Amazon Fresh was launched in 2007 and provides much of metropolitan Seattle with same-day or next-day delivery on thousands of grocery items and products. Seattle Spotlight empowers full-service restaurants to leverage that same business model.

“I didn’t see it as a takeout or delivery service as much as a different revenue source,” says Carla Leopardi, owner of Italian restaurant Café Lago. “I knew Amazon had a solid infrastructure for pickup and handling, plus a huge customer base.”

For many Seattle Spotlight restaurants, orders can be placed until late afternoon. Packaged orders are picked up by Amazon Fresh drivers in their distinctive trucks between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., taken to a warehouse, and delivered the next day.

Restaurant operators pay Amazon Fresh a 20 to 25 percent cut of sales; and in some instances, consumers also pay a delivery fee.

Restaurants have discovered that selecting menu items that travel well is important, as is choosing the right packaging.

Café Lago, an evening-only restaurant, decided against changing the way it prepares menu items, including its top-selling lasagna ($22) and calzone ($14), for Amazon Fresh. As a result, wood-fired pizza is not offered.

“We want to remain as close to the restaurant taste experience as possible,” Leopardi notes. Amazon Fresh versions arrive with precise heating or cooking directions.

Café Lago initially had issues with packaging, particularly one container that kept failing. It turned out the packages were not being properly secured in the trucks.

Samurai Noodle, which serves authentic Japanese ramen at three Seattle locations, offers Amazon Fresh customers the same menu as the restaurants. The difference is with food durability and packaging, says Anastasiya Kochetova, design and advertising coordinator.

“With Amazon Fresh deliveries, we knew we were dealing with something that may be kept in a refrigerator a day or two between ordering and eating.”

Popular dishes, like Tonkotsu Ramen ($7.25), which has pork broth, pork, green onions, mushrooms, and noodles, require three containers: a sealed one for the liquid, another for the vegetables, and an air-tight bag for the noodles.

Southwest-style restaurant Cactus, which has four Greater Seattle units, joined the delivery service in January with a limited menu, which includes the signature butternut squash enchiladas ($13), prepared stacked, Santa Fe style.

“We want to offer dishes that showcase our restaurants and provide the same experience as you would get here,” says Brent Novotny, corporate executive chef. “We are not able to do that with the entire menu.”

Because of the weight of the stacked enchiladas, he says it was critical to spend a little more for superior containers. Cactus also purchased a software program that prints bar codes for the packaging.

None of the restaurants contacted had increased staff to handle the Amazon Fresh orders, but the delivery program is adding hundreds of dollars daily to each of their revenues.

Amazon says it is “thrilled with what we’ve accomplished so far” with Amazon Fresh, but declined to comment on any expansion beyond Seattle.

Feature, Technology