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December 3, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Amazon Fresh introduces restaurant deliveries

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My husband was thrilled the other night to hear dinner was pork tonkotsu from Samurai Noodle – and that it was going to be delivered to our front door. The popular noodle shop hasn’t started delivering. The drop-off service was courtesy of Amazon.com’s grocery delivery division, AmazonFresh. Likewise, my favorite lunchtime splurge lately — also eaten in my home kitchen — has been a grilled piadina and salad from La Spiga on Capitol Hill. And the kids have previously unheard-of access to their favorite Macrina buns, Trophy Cupcakes, Eltana bagels, and other Seattle specialties. If I want a half-cup of fresh-ground sumac from World Spice without driving down to Pike Place Market, I can order that too.

Cost and calories aside, the new “Seattle Spotlight” delivery program provides previously unheard-of access to restaurant meals and ingredients from signature shops like DeLaurenti, dropped off through the same program that provides cat litter and a gallon of milk with a few hours notice. (You can make Kozmo.com jokes if you like, but I think we’re reclaiming that golden shop-from-home ground that we were told was doomed once HomeGrocer went under.) It’s also, in some cases, an interesting blend of takeout and home cooking, ranging from opening a ready-to-heat container of Pike Place Chowder to grilling your own Skillet burger patty and frying your own fries.

I was impressed with the selection, but not too surprised by it once I heard that Jonathan Hunt, formerly of Boom Noodle and Lowell-Hunt Catering, is the chef in charge of the Seattle-only program.

How do restaurants figure out how to deconstruct their dishes for a home cook to prepare, or to package them for delivery so they’re still good to eat? In La Spiga’s case, I’ve found it fairly idiot-proof to grill my prosciutto piadina (part of an $11.95 box lunch) at home to melt the cheese. The Samurai Noodle ramen has also come with straightforward directions, taking a few minutes to boil the noodles, warm the broth and pork, and add the pre-sliced toppings.

“We thought it was a neat way to offer better service without… the extra expense of opening a restaurant,” said La Spiga co-owner Sabrina Tinsley.

Working with Hunt, “we selected items we thought would travel well. We did a series of experiments, obviously, to make sure they would get there the same way,” she said. Soup, for instance, “was a bit of a challenge” on a jostling ride. Baked pastas held up better than boiled noodles.

I asked how the salad, one of my old La Spiga favorites, arrived so crisp and fresh despite what I assumed was a day’s delay. “I try to have my staff be really careful about the way they cut it. If you’re just slamming the knife down on it it’s going to bruise it and brown and deterioriate faster,” Tinsley said.

“We get our last order check at 4 p.m. It has to be ready for a 5:30 p.m. pickup. It’s a quick turnaround, but we have our system down,” Tinsley said.

Restaurants run on tight profit margins, and the restaurateurs have to choose higher profit items to make up for Amazon’s cut. But the tradeoff is “more exposure to a bigger audience,” and an innovative way to serve Eastside customers and others who don’t make it to Capitol Hill as often as they’d like.

I asked Rick Batye, vice president of AmazonFresh, how the company figures out which foods to offer, and how hard it is to make their dishes ready-to-eat or workable at home.

He said in an email that the company gravitates “towards iconic well-known brands that are associated with quality and are unique in their offering,” as well as being innovative and creative. Hunt worked with Samurai Noodle, for instance, to make their meals “the same experience” as you’d get at the restaurant, providing all the components and making it easy to prepare.

How do they decide who’s in the mix? First, Batye said, they brought in merchants and products that customers had specifically requested. Amazon approached Pasta and Co., for instance, “after a customer of ours raved about their oven-roasted chicken.” Pike Place Fish Market is so well-known that it made sense to ask the owners to be part of the program. “Right now we think more merchants are better for our customers and there’s no need for us to limit the number of merchants or their products; each brings their own style and flair.” Hunt’s background and “close-knit associations” with local chefs and merchants has been a big plus, as he can figure out which restaurants are likely to be a fit for the program. (He’s also writing up recipes using ingredients from purveyors like Fischer Meats.)

How do the logistics work? “We pick up orders from each of our merchants once or twice a day and merge them with each customer’s regular grocery or general merchandise orders. The products they sell on AmazonFresh are the same that they sell in their store or restaurant, so they are ready to go or easy to prepare as the orders come in.”

What do you think? And which restaurants would you want to see on a home-delivery list?

Photo: Samurai Noodle ramen courtesy of Amazon Fresh

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