Dabbawalla deliveries go upmarket in Mumbai

Demand is growing for posh tiffinwalla services that deliver macrobiotic and vegan meals to Bollywood stars and Mumbai's elite.
Santosh Kudekar, 33, rides with his 40 tiffin boxes after collecting vegan and macrobiotic meals from Soul Food in Mumbai.
Santosh Kudekar, 33, rides with his 40 tiffin boxes after collecting vegan and macrobiotic meals from Soul Food in Mumbai.

MUMBAI // From her kitchen in Mumbai's posh neighbourhood of Juhu, Shonali Sabherwal prepares up to 40 macrobiotic meals a day for delivery via Mumbai's famous dabbawalla delivery service.

It is a complex service in which 5,000 white-capped dabbawallas, riding bicycles, daily deliver close to 200,000 meals in India's congested financial capital, feeding a growing demand for high-end, health-conscious lunches ranging from Mexican to diabetic specialities.

Established in the 1880 by the British, the dabba or tiffinwala service first delivered home-cooked food to migrant workers who did not like the local cuisine. The delivery men are named after the lunch containers - 'tiffins' or 'dabbas' - traditionally cylindrical shaped and made of steel, or nowadays, of insulated plastic.

Today, many office workers pay a monthly fee to have a cooked meal sent from their home or a caterer, delivered in lunch boxes that are dropped off and collected by dabbawallas the same day.

The service is heralded as one of the most efficient management and logistics systems in the world. According to the website of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers' Association, which is a charitable trust that collects payments for the dabbawalla service, the dabbawallas fail to deliver a lunch to its appointed destination, on time, only once every 16 million deliveries.

That efficiency requires a rigid system of teamwork and strict scheduling.

"I hate fighting with my dabbawalla. He starts screaming if we are not ready," said Ms Sabherwal, the proprietor of Soul Food. "If we are late even one day in the whole year, he cannot take that."

Ms Sabhewal's macrobiotic lunches, which are vegetarian, emphasise grains and avoid highly processed or refined foods, cost 300 rupees (Dh19). Today's meal is a Mexican cold salad with red and green peppers, tomatoes, carrot soup and corn enchiladas stuffed with a purée of red beans and topped with grated tofu as well as a snack of idlis brown rice, a savoury cake from South India stuffed with tofu and carrots.

Her dabbawalla, Santosh Kudekar, 33, arrives early to collect the meals and must leave by 9.30am.

He spends five minutes tying the tiffin boxes to his bicycle, modified to hold as many as 40 dabbas, and then pedals off to his collection stops in the neighbourhood.

Mr Kudekar, like almost all dabbawallas in Mumbai, hails from the nearby city of Pune. He has been a dabbawalla for 12 years. Like many of his colleagues, Mr Kudekar never went to school. He supports a wife and son with his salary of 5,000 rupees (Dh330) a month. His son, now four, is the first in his family to go to school.

He has chapatti, an Indian flatbread, bhaji, a fried dumpling, and tea for breakfast. Despite the humid heat of Mumbai's summer, he only stops to drink water if he is running ahead of schedule. During the monsoon he does not wear a rain coat, because it hinders his ability to cycle, which interferes with the delivery timing.

By 10:20am, Mr Kudekar must meet other dabbawallas outside the Santa Cruz metro station to sort their tiffins. The dabbas are then loaded on khokas, long wooden palettes with iron railings, which they balance on their heads. The process takes no more than five minutes.

The walk to the station takes another 10 minutes. The dabbawallas need to exercise intense concentration as they wend their way through the mass of passengers, putting down their khokas on the platform as the clock flashes 10:35.

Dozens of dabbawallas then gather to sort the lunch boxes according to the stations where they must be unloaded. A hodgepodge of numbers, colours, English and Marathi lettering on the dabbas distinguish their destinations.

Four minutes later, the train pulls into the station. The efficiency of the Mumbai rail network is essential to dabbawalla success.

"If the train is late, it messes up our schedule and service," said Mr Kudekar.

In under 25 seconds, dabbas are loaded on and off the train. This process of loading and offloading will continue until noon. Most lunches will arrive at their destination an hour before noon. Mr Kudekar picks one station - Andheri - as his stop for deliveries.

The cost of the dabbawalla service is about 300 to 450 rupees a month. For this, a worker gets a guaranteed delivery of lunch and a dabbawalla will collect the lunch box at day's end return it to its place of origin. The service earns the dabbawalla association about 360 million rupees a year.

Sunali Parekh, a nutritionist, runs Vital Foods, a dabba service specialising in meals for diabetics and other disorders, such as kidney or liver malfunctions.

She began her business a decade ago, but noted a significant jump in demand in the past year. Two years ago, she had 250 customers. As of December last year, she had 500.

Ms Parekh said the dabbawalla service was perfect for diabetics. "They have fixed meal times. With the kind of delivery service that the dabbawallas have, they are guaranteed that their meals will reach on time," she said.

Her monthly meal service costs 2,550 rupees, plus 300 rupees delivery charge for the dabbawalla.

Pratik Jain, 26, runs Yummy Tiffins. He attributes the growth of the speciality dabba service not only to the increasingly sophisticated palate of modern Indians, but also the desire for a cheap lunch. Mr Jain started his businesses in vegetarian food two years ago when he noticed his friends would get tired of the same menu delivered by the dabbas, and eat out instead.

"I was a banker, had just completed his MBA and was working for three months when I decided to quit and start this business," said Mr Jain. His online ordering service allows menu customisation - anything from sandwiches to pastas and Indian lunches.

Before companies such as Yummy Tiffins or Soul Food came about, "this business was dominated by neighbourhood aunties", said Mr Jain.


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Published: July 2, 2012 04:00 AM


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