Dabbawalla: Hot Lunch Delivery By Mumbai’s Fastest

The iPhone app Pizza Hut has launched to order and get meals delivered is nice. But even more incredible is the story of Mumbai’s hot lunch delivery system, the ‘dabbawalla’.

Dabbawalla is the Hindi term for someone who’s job it is to deliver a hot lunch (dabba) from a worker’s house to his working spot. The dabbawalla is a more than 125 years old cooperative network of more than 5,000 largely illiterate rural workers who use the metropolitan transportation system to bring lunch bags from home to the office. 200,000 Fresh meals carefully prepared by wife’s and mothers in the suburbs are being delivered downtown at men’s work, every day. The empty dabbas are returned home. Dabbawallas use nothing more than 3-4 symbols crudely painted on their ‘dabbas’ to create an unparalleled food supply chain by using their remarkable intuition and teamwork.

Picture by Meena Kadri

Most fascinating about the dabbawallas, which is sometimes written as ‘Tiffin Wallahs’, is the eating culture behind it. As a Calvinist Dutchman I must ask myself the question: “Why not take your lunch with you in a plastic box every morning, like we do?” But the men in Mumbai don’t like the gooey sandwiches that have been interchanging flavor with a banana in the same box for some hours. Americans would think: “Why not have lunch in a lunchroom? Hamburgers and French fries should be available on each corner of the street in the innercities of India.” But we all don’t catch the point here — this is a culture of pure love. Love for food and love for family. The Indian husband wants to eat the food made by his feminine counter part, who understands, as no-one else does, what he likes for lunch. Sometimes a little message to communicate between home and work is put in the dabbas, although this tradition is being replaced by text-messaging.

Over the past 125 years, the dabbawallas have set up a distribution system that’s famous for its incredible punctuality and reliability. Worldwide, dabbawallas are known as a hard working and low-key, but amazingly well-organized system. Therefore the dabbawallas are an interesting research object for management, logistics and distribution businesses. Recently an analysis of Forbes found out that the dabbawallas have a punctuality of 99.999999 %, which means one delay in six million deliveries. These figures are impressive, considering the fact that the dabbawallas have to pick up and deliver 200,000 lunch boxes within only a couple of hours, in a city full of congestion. The dabbawallas definitely beat new technical solutions like expensive chain-supply managed software.

To the contrary, they don’t use any technical devices to support their service. Bikes and trains are used to transport and deliver the collected dabbas. Here’s how the system works:

  1. The first dabbawalla picks up the dabba from a home and takes it to the nearest railway station.
  2. The second dabbawalla sorts out the dabbas at the railway station according to destination and puts them in the luggage carriage.
  3. The third one travels with the dabbas to the railway stations nearest to the destinations.
  4. The fourth one picks up dabbas from the railway station and drops them to each individuals office.
  5. The process is reversed in the evenings with each dabba completing a distance of 60-70 kilometers and changing hands eight times!
  6. Customers pay about only $5 a month for this service, which also explains why Western cities hardly know these kinds of services — it would be too expensive.
  7. Each member of the team gets equally paid. The system is a cooperation, which means that they collectively own the business and share the profit.

On his blog Seth Godin wondered why this system works so well. His answer is that each dabbawalla knows his clients. The distribution system won’t work when the dabbawallas were shuffled for reorganization purposes. I think Godin is right. Furthermore, the dabbawallas are a cooperation, which means that everyone is responsible for the final result. This makes the chain (which is usually as strong as its weakest link) pretty solid. Since the dabbawallas are getting famous for their service, one can join them to experience the touch work they do. Prince Charles had the opportunity to do so. However, because the dabbawalla schedule is immensely tight, there was hardly time for a royal conversation, and poor Charles had to run along with the fast delivery men.