Every day, approximately 4,000 dabbawallahs deliver 160,000 home-cooked lunches from the kitchens of suburban wives and mothers direct to Mumbai’s workers in “the world’s most ingenious meal distribution system.” (Hey UPS, how’s that for logistics?)
Dabbawallahs pick up the home cooked lunches in the suburbs, hop on trains, and deliver them, via bike, to Mumbai office workers. Later on, they pick up and bring back the same empty tiffins (the name for the metal containers used).
Despite the lack of fuel, computers, or modern technology involved, a tiffin goes astray only once every two months. So for every six million tiffins delivered, only one fails to arrive. That’s why Forbes awarded the dabbawallahs a 6 Sigma performance rating (a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.9999999 or more).
mostly illiterate crew of deliverymen relies on a color coding system to route lunches to the proper recipients.
Tiffins in the wild. (source: NY Times)
The dabbawallahs even deliver in the pouring rain or during political strife. And business is growing, at a steady rate of 5-10% a year.
This CBS News story says two main reasons for the success of the Dabbawalas: 1) They abandon bad customers and 2) They prize enthusiasm over experience when hiring:
The tiffins themselves are pretty ingenious too. They consist of several stacked aluminum boxes with a carry-handle. Each container carries individual portions that separate curry dishes, bread, rice, desserts, and more.
At Squidoo, a user named Enigmaa8 lists “10 things I love about Tiffin Boxes”:
1. You can have more than one course. Tiffins come in several different compartments so you can seperate your starter, mains and dessert. Or even your breakfast from your lunch.
2. Not only does it keeps you food separate it keeps the food in its original shape. No more squashed food or bruised fruit.
3. Easy to transport with carry handle positioned at the top keeping everything upright.
4. Healthy Living. Make your own food and know what goes into it.
Want your own? Design Within Reach offers a high-end Tiffin Lunch Box Set. Or Happy Tiffin sells “earth-friendly” tiffins.
Joeon 02 May 11
Question: Why don’t Mumbai office workers carry their own lunches to the office and back home? Is it because the food is more fresh when delivered by this system? Or is they do not commute from the home where the food is prepared? Or is it due to custom? Other?
Thibaut Assuson 02 May 11
Really interesting article ! I’ll try to inspire myself more about that for our new service : http://www.feedmehq.com which is a home cooked meal service for hungry people (only in philadelphia for now)
MZon 02 May 11
@Joe – It’s a little bit of everything. There’s the tradition/custom and the need for the food to be fresh and warm. There’s also a social stigma tied to carrying in your lunch. It sends vibes that you’re unable (or too cheap) to afford the dabbawalas.
Mohiton 02 May 11
Because we can get a dabba (a.k.a tiffin) for real cheap! The food in there is fresh and tastes great. Also, Indian food typically takes a lot of time to make – time that most commuters don’t have.
Custom was to pack a “tiffin” from home and take it with you – but that means you/the missus/or some cook wakes up an hour earlier and does all the grunt work, and the food is cold when you eat it :(
Dabbawallas are essentially a highly distributed, scalable logistics company with high throughput and very low error rates.
Chintan Patelon 02 May 11
Being an Indian, i can say there is no custom involved for sure. I will share my theory:
Most people in Mumbai travel by local trains to their offices which are pretty crowded (I have travelled by them during my 15 days vacation) and in Mumbai, your office would normally be 1-1.5 hours away from where you live and so it means you have to wake up early to catch the train and if you want to carry your food, to prepare it, your wife/mother/you will have to wake up even earlier. Also a tiffin is a hassle to carry if you already have a briefcase/bag.
In comparison, the food is fresh, warm and you dont have to worry about carrying your tiffin to and fro and also, it gets delivered during unrest/violence and the rains which can get so extreme in Mumbai that they drown entire areas pretty quickly and can go on for 18 hours or more. So i think the dabbawallas are worth paying for the convenience.
Sudhir Jonathanon 02 May 11
Again, a little bit of everything. I’m a lot more westernized than most of my colleagues and I don’t even live in Mumbai, but even I wouldn’t mind using them if my mum / future wife were traditional enough to cook so regularly.
Some of it is from mothers / wives – they take pride in feeding their sons / husbands, and they really don’t want them eating ‘that unhealthy rubbish’ you get at fast food chains or restaurants.
Then there’s pull of eating food everyday that tastes just like mum used to make it, because, well, she did.
I don’t think it’ll last long, though. We have catered lunches at work, and the number of people who still carry their own lunch / go back home to eat is diminishing. Throw in the rise in the number or working and independent women and that pretty much spells the end of it.
I’d give the practice one generation more, maybe. I hope the Dabbawallahs are able to pivot and find another calling, though.
Jason Klugon 02 May 11
Thanks for sharing this!
I found it thoroughly inspiring in the face of some logistical “challenges” that keep coming up in a delivery system I’m developing.
It’s also nice to confirm that enough of a premium is placed on convenience/freshness to justify a service like this at such a scale (far bigger than I’m reaching for).
Shaunak Aminon 02 May 11
If you enjoyed Matt’s post you may also enjoy the TED talk by a Mumbai Dabbawala (link below)
GregTon 02 May 11
One the one hand … very impressive!
On the other hand … is occupying 4,000 people and related traffic etc. really the most efficient way of meeting the lunchtime needs of Mumbai office workers? Couldn’t all the labor be put to some more efficient use?
Question: what about all the other cities in India, do they have a similar system, if not why not?
mitalion 02 May 11
Having gone to school in Bombay (as real Bombay residents still call it) and eaten my tiffin lunch made by mom and delivered by our dabba wallah every day, I can attest to how incredibly efficient this system is.
For those who asked why we dont carry lunch ourselves… a typical indian lunch will consist of rice or paratha / chapati, a veggie dish, possibly a meat dish and desert. this is impossible for women to prepare before 7am in the morning when most office and school goers leave for morning commute. and making it night before would be yucky and not fresh. especially for chapatis. i REALLY miss my home made lunch :(
Niccolò Brogion 02 May 11
Anishon 02 May 11
In addition to Mohit, Chintan, and Sudhir’s comments I would add that while the tiffin system exists throughout India, the dabbawallahs are only prevalent in Mumbai because of the busy nature of the city and the train system. In other Indian cities, office workers carry their own tiffins because they generally leave home later in the morning. That video is very outdated: dabbawallahs might not read for pleasure, but they are literate and almost all carry mobile phones.
So while office workers cannot carry their own tiffins (because they leave for work so early in the morning and due to the crowds in the local trains, they can’t hold tiffin boxes), the dabbawallahs transport tiffins by a combination of bicycle, handcarts, and the luggage compartments of local trains. They will deliver in any weather condition, no matter how hot or how heavy the rain (barring exceptional circumstances ~ 1x a year). Nowadays migrant office workers can order tiffins on a monthly basis so they get home-cooked lunches in their offices. I used a service called Magic-o-Meal: http://www.magicomeal.com/ In fact, my dabbawallah gave me 1/2 hour to eat my lunch. He would drop it off on one side of the hallway, eat his own lunch and/or nap, and return to pick it up the empty tiffin from the other side of the hallway. Even if I couldn’t eat lunch immediately, I was to empty the tiffin so he could send it back on its return journey.
It is a phenomenally well-organized system and speaks volumes to the nature of human ingenuity.
Dan Delanyon 02 May 11
This is cool! I want one here in America.
One question – what if you don’t have someone at home to make hot lunches for you? Can you pay extra and get paired up with someone who will make food for you? Dabbawallahs for singles if you will?
Gabe da Silveiraon 02 May 11
No, McDonalds is. It’s also the most efficient way to boost obesity and diabetes into the stratosphere. Efficiency isn’t everything.
Jasonon 02 May 11
This is awesome. I saw Anthony Bourdain feature these on an episode of No Reservations and it blew me away.
Adnanon 03 May 11
Lunch in India is typically a proper meal, as opposed to a quick snack that western office goers usually take. A sandwich or a salad doesn’t qualify as ‘lunch’. That’s why it’s a hassle to prepare or carry a lunch. It always has to be a full meal like a dinner.
Gumaroon 03 May 11
No soup for you! NEXT!
Merleon 03 May 11
Incredible. I rarely get good home cooking and something like that would make me very happy on a daily basis.
Arielon 03 May 11
abandoning bad customers—key.
Marcon 03 May 11
Great read. Really cool story. Thanks for sharing.
Sachinon 03 May 11
yesss..I have eaten it once and its awesome…...and heard about dabbawalla on many news channels here in India also…they are incredible…I think their distribution system is as strong as Apples….
Kyleon 03 May 11
Thanks for mentioning the awesomeness of the tiffin. Being in Myanmar, I love using them and the fact that they can carry multiple courses in one containable system. I know that I will never abandon mine!
Deepak Shenoyon 03 May 11
A number of women prepare food for the “singles” and deliver through the dabbawalas. There are now restaurants and delivery chains that offer lunch through dabbas too: check out one in this blogpost:
Operations researcheron 03 May 11
Great study for operations researchers. I hear that the error rate (meal going to the wrong person is very very rare) is minuscule making even six sigma gurus envious!!
datton 03 May 11
Moreover this food is hygienic, tasty and chief.I have seen people eating in road side rather than restaurant particularly techie guys.
mobikwikon 03 May 11
I am the CEO of a mobile recharge startup http://www.mobikwik.com and even I would love to use a service like this. Unfortunately, Mumbai seems to be the only big city in India where Dabbawallahs are operational. Our employees end up eating junk food ( pizza/burger) often in the week so we would rather have them healthy fresh food. Plus, I reckon its cheap too!
dimitris mistriotison 03 May 11
I got confused about one thing: The meals are being prepared by the worker’s wives (or relatives, etc), or there is some kind of contract (women that cook an extra meal or meals and sell them)?
Heidi Moorman Coudalon 03 May 11
Great read. Having lived a semester of college in India and now the owner of catering company, the logistics of the tiffin box (cooking, delivering, washing) have always amazed me.
Denison 03 May 11
FYI, the management of Tiffin boxes was the source of inspiration for the initial set up of FedEx’s distribution system.
Beckon 04 May 11
I’ve seen the documentary about this on Japanese TV about 1 or 2 years ago – absolutely astonishing.
Delivering your home comfort lunch right to your office.
Hamidon 04 May 11
How they really could manage this? It’s a real six sigma.
Feyyazon 04 May 11
Awesome post, very interesting topic I didn’t know nothing about.
What I’m wondering though, how do they guarantee, that the meals are still warm when arriving? Are these distances that short?
Vipulon 04 May 11
I live in Mumbai. Most of the people travel in local train and it generally take 1-1.5hr to reach office and so to reach office at 9, you need to rush in morning 7.30-8. It generally take 2 hr to prepare food, so it become very difficult to prepare food in morning. Thats why people use service of dabbawalas.
Mike Keefeon 04 May 11
Any idea what this service cost?
Vipulon 04 May 11
@Mike Keefe they charge 350 indian rupee/ month for service.
MCon 05 May 11
5. SparksFun when you put them in the microwave.
Akash Manoharon 06 May 11
@dimitris From what I’ve read above (all the comments), the dabbawallahs are just a distribution service. So your wife (or mom or some relative) can cook for you and send you the food through the dabbawallahs. They wait for you to eat and then take the tiffin box back.
I’m not sure whether they also take the tiffin box back to the one who prepared the lunch on the same day or if they do it the next day morning when they pick up your other lunch box.
According to @deepak, if you are a single, then there are certain services (restaurants included) and also women that prepare lunch and send it to you through the dabbawallahs.
In short they just make sure that you can serve yourself fresh lunch.
This discussion is closed.