Only in Mumbai: Dabbawala Lunchtime Delivery

Outside Churchgate Station, Mumbai, India

Who has time to make lunch when you work a 12-hour day and commute another hour or two? Not the 200,000 office and other workers in Mumbai who rely on a phalanx of men in white Gandhi caps to pick up freshly cooked meals and deliver them to their offices. It’s a tradition that has been going on since 1890, when most workers toiled in Mumbai’s huge cotton mills.

“It’s our practice to cook every meal fresh,” our guide Freni Avari told us as we stood on a busy corner across from Mumbai’s Churchgate train station. We were waiting for the dabbawalas, the famed lunchbox delivery team, to arrive from the station and begin their sidewalk handover of the lunchboxes (dabbas) with fresh home-cooked meals so they would be delivered to their recipients on time.

We scheduled our morning to arrive at Churchgate just before 11:30. That’s when the dabbawalas converge to transfer lunches from the morning pick-up crew to the mid-day delivery team. Some came on bicycles loaded with layered tiffin (lunch) boxes in colorful totes or packs. Others emerged from the train station balancing pallets filled with lunches on their heads. We watched them cross the street precariously, dodging taxis, cars, buses and pedestrians on their cell phones. Just like home. Well, not quite.

Along the sidewalk other men found quiet spots to start sorting the lunches for delivery.

Occasionally two or three people would have a little sidewalk conference to decipher the markings on one of the packs. Otherwise the men moved quietly and swiftly. They had done this handover thousands of times before. Time was of the essence. The dabbawalas had just a brief window to get the lunches on their way for a 1 p.m. lunch-hour arrival.

International validation

Being on time is key to this home-grown business model that started with about 100 young men delivering fresh meals to workers. On time and accurate has kept the now 5,000 dabbawalas going strong for 130 years as their exquisitely choreographed system of pick-ups and deliveries dances across Mumbai each workday.

The Harvard Business Review and Forbes have written about the dabbawalas. Prince Charles met with them and invited two dabbawalas to his wedding. Richard Branson not only spent a day with them, but also delivered lunches to Virgin employees in Mumbai. The dabbawalla workflow is so fine-tuned that Fed Ex studied the group’s delivery efficiency. And one of their own, Pawan G. Agrawal, whose father and grandfather were dabbawalas, wrote his Ph.D. thesis on dabbawala logistics. His popular TEDx talk references four reasons for their enduring success: commitment, passion, structure and leadership.

“Their business model is amazing,” said Freni. Of course it depends on someone, traditionally a wife or mother, to be at home in the morning to cook and pack up the meal after the commuter leaves. “The dabbawala usually comes on a bicycle and rings your doorbell around 9:30 to pick up the lunches. Each dabbawalla is in charge of about 45 lunchboxes or tiffins from the same area. They carry 10 on each handlebar, and hooks on the seat allow them to carry another 25 or so. Then they peddle off to the nearest train station.”

A workflow that works

Actually Mumbai’s suburban commuter rail system both makes the dabbawalla system necessary and makes it possible. Out of the city’s population of 20 million people, 8 million commute by train every day.

The trains are stuffed-to-the-gills crowded, and people have to leave home dreadfully early. Carrying lunch is virtually impossible. Finding a niche that needed to be filled, the dabbawalas set up a food delivery system using the trains so everyone else can go to work and still have a fresh lunch. Freni reminded us that there were no microwaves and no fridges when the system began.

She explained that the lunches are sorted at the local train stations according to a code defined by color and number. Most of the dabbawalas come from the same village south of Mumbai near Pune. Many are barely literate, though their children now all go to school. Early on, they developed a code using colors, numbers and letters in either English or local script that tells them where the lunchboxes need to go.

Each of the dabbawalas belongs to the Mumbai Dabbawala Association and contributes either a bike, a handcart or a wooden crate to the business. Each person is paid the same amount every month. They work in groups of about 20 people. One of the elders works as the customer relations manager or leader for each group.

“The amazing thing is that not only do they deliver on time, Monday to Friday and sometimes on Saturday, but they do a reverse supply chain picking up the empties at 2 p.m. and delivering them back home by 4:45,” explained Freni. “It’s a whole team along the way. The guy who picks it up at the houses is not the guy who delivers it at the offices.”

A trusted system

The dabbawalas are so trusted that husbands and wives, mothers and working children send notes, forgotten sunglasses and the occasional paycheck back and forth via the dabbawalla lunchbox express.

“Before mobile phones, we used to send messages along with lunch,” laughed Freni. The 2013 movie The Lunchbox is based on the premise of a wife sending a note to her disaffected husband. But alas, the lunchbox went astray and was delivered to a depressed widower. A romance in letters ensued, with lunch and notes traversing the city daily. The real dabbawalas, however, were not amused by the movie’s premise because it depended on a delivery error. Distribution mistakes happen so rarely that an international urban legend has grown up around their astounding accuracy.

The dabbawalas are gingerly taking steps into the 21st-century. They have a commissary so people without someone at home to cook can have lunch delivered. Occasionally they enhance their income by delivering small ads with the lunchboxes. And economically they are much less expensive than modern app-based food delivery services. Bottom line for customers, engaging a dabbawala is both reliable and reasonable.

And, as Freni points out, Mumbai is multi-ethnic with people from all regions of India. “They all have their own dietary restrictions. Some people are vegetarian only certain days of the week. A lot of people won’t eat anything sour on Friday. Many communities eat alternative grains (like coarse millet) instead of rice or wheat for a whole month. And then we have the fasting,” she said. “For us the fasting does not mean staying hungry. Fasting just means you can eat only certain foods at certain times, perhaps butternut squash, tapioca or bananas instead of rice or dal.” Then there are the Jains, strict vegetarians who never eat onions or garlic.

There is one obvious solution to dealing with all those variations. If you are in Mumbai, hire the dabbawalas to deliver your lunch. You won’t be sorry. The rest of us just have to make do with fast-casual or a bag lunch.

In their own words … from the dabbawalla website:

Since 1890, Mumbai army of 5,000 Dabbawalas fulfilling the hunger of almost 200,000 Mumbaikar with home-cooked food that we lug between home and office daily.

Our core service is Dabba delivery i.e., delivering home cooked food from your house/mess to your work place. We operate pan Mumbai from Virar to Churchgate and from Ambernath to Dadar. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Battle with time and weather our day ends with an emotional satisfaction and happiness…

No worries if you are not from Mumbai, No worries if there is no one at your house to cook food for you. We have the solution for all food related issues because we love foodies, moreover we love vegetarians!

We provide healthy home-cooked food straight away from our kitchen to your table which would be appealing to your eye & to your palate too. Be it dal or be it a gravy, our food is prepared under hygienic conditions using refined oil which best takes care of your heart, because for us your little heart is utmost important.

So the struggle for healthy food gets over. Contact us for wide variety of options!

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  1. Beautifully descriptive. Great pics.
    Loved it

    • Great look into the hidden culture.

    • Thanks Freni! And you were there right beside us. Thanks for introducing us to Mumbai.

    • Very interesting. How much does an average lunch cost?

      Thanks for sharing it with me

  2. Wonderful to read from you on and about our Dabawallahs! More power to you!

    • Masters of logistics! As I watched the touching film years ago, I didn’t realize that the plot point of “the error” would be hurtful. Always interesting to expand one’s thinking. Thanks.

  3. As always, you found some “hidden insite” for those of us who either haven’t been there or had visited and hadn’t known the story behind the colorful scenes. Love to read your descriptions and see your wonderful photographs.

  4. Wonderful description! I am trying to imagine this system in NYC! Is this the replacement for UberEats? Solution to NYC congestion!

    Thanks, Ellen and Susan.

    • Thanks Iris. So glad you’re joining the Hidden-inSite journey. More on India coming this spring. Which do you think is worse, congestion in NYC or in Mumbai?


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