What do you get when there is a strong network of 5000 people, delivering 150,000 lunch boxes, six days a week sharp at lunchtime and all this with an error of nearly zero. Their organization and work have earned them six Sigma certificates, ISO 2000 certificates and their leaders have lectured at IIMs . I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken you long. But for those who don’t know about this business that has astonished many from Richard Branson to Prince Charles (So much so that dabbawallahs were even invited to his wedding to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall), they are the 130-year-old business institution of Mumbai-- the famous Dabbawallahs.
.A dabba is essentially a box, and traditionally it is an aluminum tiffin box with four compartments one over another and placed in a larger box of the same metal. It carries enough food for one person, even two. The metal box is light, strong, non-rusting and can keep the food warm for a couple of hours.
More than 200,000 such boxes are ferried from homes or largely women-run catering services from across Mumbai. The fast-moving men collect the boxes by cycle, ferry them by suburban train network to the final destination by hand pulled carts and arrive by lunchtime at the office desks of their owners. Empty boxes are collected and returned to their homes.
The short, sturdy man carries a rack of a score of dabbas on his head with only a white cotton cap as a cushion. Each box has a peculiar mark or number to ensure that it is collected from and sent to the right hands.
Their efforts to set up in Delhi or even London have not worked. In 2007, many of them toured the Indian capital city to sell their expertise. But the results were not positive.
Now they have landed in US, at least their work ethics have brought by One World Cuisine, a leading chain that specializes in Indian food. With a click of the mouse, patrons can order home-style Indian lunches from Tiffin Meals in their homes or offices in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The American version is undoubtedly a sophisticated and innovative. The chefs prepare the day's menu fresh every morning. The meals are supplied in attractive freezer and microwave-safe containers, which need not be returned. Each meal contains a soup of the day, choice of three daily entrees, daal (lentil) or vegetable curry, rice, onion and tamarind chutney and naan (bread). Snack items such as samosas or pakoras, beverages and dessert cost extra. The prices are reasonable: two vegetarian dishes for US$7.50 and one non-vegetarian selection for US$8.50.
Mumbai's dabbawallah operation began in the 1860s, some remember. They have withstood the test of time, not only because nothing pleases an Indian more than a home-cooked meal but also because it is efficiently run.
The classic dabbawallah is a Maratha, the martial class from the Maharashtra state, not quite used to business acumen. With most of his colleagues illiterate they have evolved into this co-operative trade and got used to Mumbai’s dynamism. This down to earth persona has an official website, mydabbawalla.com, with a picture of the white capped man displaying the boxes on the top and a brand logo, a battered aluminium dabba.
Their clients include corporate top notches to middle class, all are praise for they never come late or go wrong with their dabbas.