The story about Mumbai’s famous lunchbox carriers – dabbawalas – has been around for nearly twenty years. It all began with a Forbes article ‘Fast Food’ by Subrata Chakravarty who gave insights into the men who supply office workers of Mumbai with home-cooked food, a lunch delivery service that has existed for more than a century.
The word “dabba” loosely means “lunch box” and dabbawalla translates to lunch delivery man. For six days a week and 51 weeks in a year, an army of 5,000 dabbawalas conducts an average of 260,000 transactions daily. This translates to 130,000 metal tiffins delivered to offices every morning and 130,000 are returned home every afternoon. That’s nearly 80 million annual deliveries of home-cooked meals!
The reason why this tiffin delivery business model attracts worldwide attention is their flawless (well, almost) efficiency. Harvard Business School, FedEx, business mogul Richard Branson and other consultants had studied the dabbawalla system and asserted that the dabbawalas operate to Six Sigma standards which are defined as “3.4 defective parts (errors) per million opportunities”. This means fewer than 300 lunchboxes go astray each year – an error occurs every 8 million deliveries!
Churchgate Railway Station
During my visit to Mumbai in 2017, I wanted to see the dabbawalas in action especially when they arrive at Churchgate Railway Station to sort out the tiffins before delivering to office workers who work in Fort Mumbai area. My friend Johann of The Kochi Heritage Project from Kerala, had joined me that morning – we both had heard so much about dabbawalas and wanted to take photos of them.
The strange thing was we were given various timings about the dabbawalas’ arrival at the railway station. Some people said 9.30am, others said 12pm while vendors who worked at the railway station had no clue at all! We even googled for information but sources from the internet lacked consistency as well.
To ensure that we didn’t miss the dabbawalas, we arrived at Churchgate at 9.30am. After a long wait and a few more enquiries here and there, we learnt that the dabbawalas would arrive between 11.30am and noon. True enough, we eventually saw them emerging from the station, dressed in white cotton shirts and trousers, wearing the starched white Gandhi cap and balancing a 7ft-long wooden crate precariously on their heads. Inside the wooden crate were 20 or so metal tiffins and lunchboxes.
The dabbawalas collect the tiffins or lunchboxes from residential clients around 9am, after which the tiffins are mainly transported via Mumbai trains while the short hop from the railway stations to offices and homes is usually via bicycles or pushcarts. Empty tiffins are collected from the offices at about 1pm.
Each tiffin or lunchbox has a system of alphanumeric codes which identify where the box is collected, the originating and destination railway stations and the office address to which it is to be delivered.
Monthly charges for the dabbawalas service range from 400 rupees to 1,200 rupees ($6 to $17). Interestingly, the rate is not dependent on the distance but based on the ability of the customer to pay. Customers living in upscale neighbourhoods tend to pay higher rates.
Dabbawalas vs Food Delivery Apps
One might assume that there would be less demand for dabbawalas lunch delivery service in Mumbai with food delivery mobile apps. On the contrary, the dabbawalas continue to become stronger, thanks to their citywide scale and monopoly on the weekday lunch delivery business. Leveraging on their large networks, they are now delivering food for large e-commerce companies like Flipkart.
Organised as a co-operative, the dabbawalas of Mumbai have been profitable for more than a century, thus they are able to provide decent salaries and training programs for their workforce. The lunch delivery man enjoys job security, but more importantly, he commands respect in metropolis Mumbai, the toughest of Indian cities.
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