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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

Packed, delivered to perfection: How Mumbai’s Dabbawalas have been feeding city for 125 years

The Dabbawalla service is now a Rs40-45-crore industry, with 5,000 delivery men transporting 2,00,000 lunch boxes daily for an average monthly fee of Rs450 a box

mumbai Updated: Apr 18, 2017 19:31 IST
Sadaguru Pandit
Sadaguru Pandit
Hindustan Times
A dabbawala sorts tiffin boxes at Lower Parel on Monday.  The Rs40-45-crore industry, with 5,000 delivery men, transports 2,00,000 lunch boxes daily.
A dabbawala sorts tiffin boxes at Lower Parel on Monday. The Rs40-45-crore industry, with 5,000 delivery men, transports 2,00,000 lunch boxes daily.(Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

In the 1890s, a Parsi banker from Mumbai’s old business district, Fort, wanted home-cooked lunch delivered to his office, and so, he employed a young man to get his tiffin every afternoon. Over the years, that one-man tiffin service grew into a Mumbai institution, which has endured time and trends. Today, the Dabbawalla’s of Mumbai are a case study for management students at several institutes across the world.

“There was a dearth of an effective system that would ensure that home-made meals reached the table tops of office goers,” said Subhash Talekar, general secretary, Mumbai Dabbawalla Association, talking about the initial days.

The Fort banker probably paid a few annas a month to get his tiffin box delivered, but the Dabbawalla service is now a Rs40-45-crore industry, with 5,000 delivery men transporting 2,00,000 lunch boxes daily for an average monthly fee of Rs450 a box. The Dabbawallas do this with great efficiency, earning a near six-sigma perfection of one error per 16 million deliveries.

How did the service survive, amid the competition of online food delivery applications and without any technological developments or marketing? The answer: The craving for inexpensive home-cooked food.

“Mumbai being the city of corporates and office goers, not everybody can afford to eat out, economically or health wise. The value of home cooked food is paramount and thus we, who deliver it, become equally important,” said Talekar.

“Our customers have to catch early morning trains and it is not possible for people at home to cook food so early. We just pick up lunch boxes from their homes and deliver them at the lunch time at the office,” said another Dabbawalla.

The perfect delivery of Dabbawalas
  • The dabbawala service started 125 years ago, when a Parsi banker said he wanted regular home-cooked meals delivered to his office in Fort, south Mumbai
  • Dabbawalas reportedly have a six-sigma accuracy level, which means only one mistake is made every 16 million deliveries.
  • Several management experts across the globe use Mumbai dabbawalas as a case study, citing their near-perfect managerial operations
  • The system that was developed in the 1890’s continues today, with a few modifications that have helped dabbawalas facilitate the identification and delivery of their tiffins
  • More than 2 lakh dabbas are delivered daily Service charges vary, depending on the customer’s location and the distance covered.
  • The average cost is around Rs 450. This covers the distance from homes spread over distant suburbs such as Virar and Kalyan to south Mumbai

The tiffin delivery men use another Mumbai icon – the suburban trains – to ensure that the lunch boxes reach their destinations on time. The three railway lines – Western, Central and Harbour – that link 70 stations, ensure that the lunch boxes travel from the farthest northern suburbs to the business areas on the southern tip of the city within a maximum of two hours.

The tiffin delivery men, most of who come from villages around Pune, are from the Maratha community and like to think of themselves as the soldiers of Maratha king, Shivaji. While the soldiers negotiated a rough countryside, the Dabbawallas pride themselves on “deliver on time”, never mind Mumbai’s heat or floods. “We are Mavla’s, strongmen of king Shivaji, what will happen to us?” asks one of them when asked if they face any issues delivering in extreme weather conditions.

  • What does Mumbai mean to you? Over the next few weeks, we are celebrating our favourite things about the city? We will trace the roots of Mumbai’s most popular street foods, drop in at its maidans, explore the workings of its stock markets and that grand dream machine that is Bollywood. We would like to hear from you too
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The Dabbawallas believe that the tradition, which is now into its third generation, is likely to continue despite new job opportunities and modern food delivery systems. “The tiffin service is a business of repute, since we are not working under anyone. It is our own business. Moreover, the individuals, whom the society refers to as ‘zero’ owing to their poor educational qualifications, we make them ‘heroes’ because they earn as much as a learned graduate,” said Talekar. “We never kept our knowledge or profession a secret. Whoever wanted to learn, we trained them, but I think the profession is meant for this city.”

With increasing publicity, the Dabbawallas are also getting different opportunities apart from just delivering tiffin. Recently, an e-commerce company chose them for the last-mile connectivity. The Mumbai Dabbawalla Association made 60 motorbikes available for those who wanted to earn extra.

Another association, Mumbai Dabbawallas, is offering seminars, presentation and workshops, giving an insight into the 125-year-old tradition. The group also provides an on-ground learning experience through a three-hour, ‘A Day with Mumbai Dabbawalla’, session that is very popular among the management trainees from different business schools across the globe.

“We have been getting many requests from not only India, but many foreign countries to personally interact and understand the working of Dabbawallas. They want to accompany us through the sorting process and in local trains,” said a member from the group.

The Dabbawallas deliver more than just lunch boxes. They also deliver social messages and give their support for different causes. “We condemn the illegal custody of Kulbhushan Jadhav and demand his immediate release,” a message that will be delivered by the 5,000 Dabbawallas of Mumbai on Tuesday morning.

Read more: Snack and the city: How the vada pav has kept up with Mumbai’s appetite