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Thinking Outside The Lunchbox: The 130 Year Old Delivery Service Feeding Mumbai

Food Cultures
Jul 12
2.5 Mins

The Dabbawalas are a Mumbai food institution, delivering 200,000 homemade lunches every day like clockwork. We take a look at how they were founded over a century ago, and what's kept them ticking all those years...

Uber Eats. DoorDash. Deliveroo. Just Eat.

These titans of modern food delivery are a mere flash in the pan compared to the Mumbai Dabbawalas.

Literally translated as ‘box carriers’, this brotherhood of bike-bound delivery men have been feeding workers for well over a century, rising early each morning to collect lunches freshly made by home cooks across India’s largest city.

In recent times, foreign businesses have begun looking to this institution for a little Mumbai magic of their own - seeing if they can harness some of what makes the Dabbawalas work so well.

Centuries of Cyclists

Back in the 1800’s, India saw a huge migration of people from rural areas to cities like Mumbai (or Bombay as it was known at the time).

These new factory workers and office clerks were forced to work ungodly hours, waking up at the crack of dawn and regularly skipping meals.

That is until 1890, when an enterprising man by the name of Mahadeo Havaji Bachche thought of a way to break this cycle, simultaneously filling the stomach and soothing the homesickness of the city’s new workforce.

He enlisted one hundred men, using bikes and trains, and started a service that would deliver freshly cooked meals and a taste of home to the thousands of workers that were helping Mumbai grow.

As the city expanded, so did the organisation, and the Dabbawalas have been pedalling their food across the city ever since.

Silver Service

Photo by u/fnord_happy on Reddit

Today’s Dabbawalas are a well oiled machine, providing lunches for over 200,000 workers every day.

Traditionally served in round metal tins known as Tiffin (not to be confused with the sickly sweet rocky road lookalike) these meals are picked up from the wives, families or housestaff of the workers, and delivered in time for lunch. The empty Tiffin are then collected and returned to the correct homes.

Doesn’t sound too hard right?

Well all of this is done without modern technology, and many of the Dabbawalas are illiterate with little to no education.

Instead of QR sorting codes and order verification software, the company relies on a system of numbers and symbols painted on to the Tiffin so that they can be easily organised and delivered.

Another important aspect of the Dabbawala machine is the cohesive ethos that all the riders abide by.

Hailing almost entirely from the town of Pune, Southeast of Mumbai, these delivery men have to work in perfect harmony to make sure that each meal reaches the correct destination.

They see food as if it is medicine saving the lives of the workers that they are feeding - which might explain why it's reported that Dabbawalas make one mistake every 6 million deliveries!

Step aside Swiss watchmakers and German train conductors, there’s a new contender for the ‘most punctual’ title...

Brand and Deliver

Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

Businesses around the world are starting to take note of the Dabbawalas efficiency and are desperate to find out what makes them tick.

In 2019, Ritesh Andre, great grandson of Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, was invited to give a Ted talk to discuss the merits of the Dabbawala model to the world.

Even Harvard Business School views them as a formidable organisation, using the group for a case study. So what lessons could western companies learn from the white-clad delivery men?

Professor Stefan Thomke had this to say about them:

“They are laser focused on the thing they are trying to achieve, it is the simplicity of how they do things that actually helps them.”

Domino's pizza, take note...

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