Amazon, the online behemoth that has toppled bookstores and threatened big-box retailers, is trying out its next play — food delivery — on the streets of Baltimore.
The company announced Thursday that it would begin offering delivery for 59 local restaurants, making Baltimore the fourth market in which Amazon Prime members can order meals in an hour or less.
The online retail giant launched restaurant delivery earlier this year in its headquarters city of Seattle, as well as Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles in the start of a shift in how restaurants reach their customers.
The service, part of Amazon's Prime Now platform, incorporates 10 ZIP codes in Baltimore, mostly in and around downtown. It's part of Amazon's plan to expand restaurant delivery to the 20 markets where it offers Prime Now, a one- and two-hour delivery option. Customers can order food through the Prime Now mobile app, which uses real-time traffic conditions to display only restaurants that will be able to deliver within the one-hour window. So, for instance, if a customer wants to order a meal during rush hour, Prime Now will only display restaurants closer to the user.
Delivery times average 39 minutes in Amazon's three West Coast markets, said Tom Cook, an Amazon spokesman.
Amazon isn't the only player offering third-party dispatches for restaurants in Baltimore; the company is moving into OrderUp's home turf, where other competitors like GrubHub and Eat24 already operate. Cook said Amazon wasn't targeting smaller competitors like OrderUp when it launched the service in Baltimore, though he said that Amazon Prime's convenience and familiarity set it apart from other carriers.
Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York City, said he doesn't see the third-party restaurant delivery bubble bursting any time soon. In the short term, he thinks there's room for other players because there's so much growth potential. Five years from now that could change.
"Amazon's record is when they do something they execute better than everyone else," Davidowitz said. "They've identified a need, a demand, something people want — particularly millennials — and they're going to do it and they're going to kick butt."
OrderUp founder Chris Jeffery said in a statement he understands why Amazon would target Baltimore.
"Given our great team, we look forward to continuing to grow OrderUp's presence in Baltimore and around the country," he said, "and we're happy to compete against anyone."
Amazon's delivery service doesn't preclude participating restaurants from offering other delivery options. Donna's Cafe in Charles Village recently began delivering through OrderUp — an option it will continue to provide. Alan Hirsch, a partner in the cafe, saw Prime Now delivery as a fail-safe addition that would supplement Donna's current business.
"If Amazon is doing it, there's a big commitment to it and it's going to be successful," he said.
Amazon takes a cut of the sales for each delivery it makes, but it does not charge customers delivery fees in any of the markets where it operates. The company has no immediate plans to tack on extra charges, but Cook said that could change down the road.
Amazon uses a couple of different parameters to determine which neighborhoods and which restaurants it serves. The regions where it operates must already have a strong Amazon Prime customer base, and the company looks to partner with higher-end restaurants in those areas.
"We focus on bringing on really high-bar restaurants and partnering with really iconic restaurants," Cook said.
That often means working with establishments that wouldn't otherwise offer delivery. Take La Cuchara. The Basque restaurant, which opened in April, didn't have a delivery option until Amazon approached the owners about joining their service.
"A lot of times people wouldn't look at our kind of dining as being able to order out, but there's definitely some things on our menu that will travel well, so we decided to go for it," said Jake Lefenfeld, one of La Cuchara's owners. "Any food that wouldn't travel well or not reach its destination will not be on that menu."
Dimitris Spiliadis, who operates Agora Market and the Olive Room at the Inn at the Black Olive, is participating in Amazon delivery but, like La Cuchara, can't offer every item for delivery. He hopes customers who try his restaurants' food through delivery will have an incentive to come and try those dishes only available in-house.
Over time Amazon will add to the restaurants on its launch list. The service will eventually expand to other ZIP codes, too. It's currently available in 21201, 21202, 21205, 21210, 21211, 21213, 21218, 21224, 21230 and 21231.
Hirsch sees Amazon delivery as incremental business. And if it becomes overwhelming, restaurants can shut down the service at any time.
"They're obviously very focused on making sure things go well, and they don't want us to take orders we can't handle," Hirsch said. "It was a very low-risk proposition for us."