Dabbawalas [Indian lunch delivery]- how do they do it?

I’ve been watching some videos on the dabbawalas(there are other spellings, since it’s a transliterated word, but I’m just gonna stick with that one), and I’m dumbfounded and dazzled.

The videos show you the overview, the global picture. I’m a detail person. What I want to know is how this works at the individual lunch-maker level and the individual dabbawalla level.

Am I getting this right: Let’s say I have a husband who works in the city and two children at two different schools. I make lunches for them and put them in containers and… then what? Someone comes to my house/apartment and picks them up? Or do I put them out on the porch (if I have a porch)?

Then whoever picks up the containers knows where they go because we set this up when I hired the service. Then he takes them on his bicycle along with THOUSANDS of other dabbawallas and they meet at some sorting place and sort out and some have to get on trains… AAGGHH!!!

And at the end of the day I get my containers back and do the whole thing all over again tomorrow? For TEN DOLLARS A MONTH?

I cannot wrap my brain around the nitty gritty specific logistical details of how my lunch boxes get to my husband and two kids in three different locations, they eat the food, and the containers get back to me most of the time on the same day.

And it’s not that the dabbawallas are mostly illiterate and do this virtually without technology (now apparently some use texting)… I don’t see how you could do this everyday even WITH technology. These men deliver something like 400,000 lunches every day.

Side question: what is the average distance that the lunch boxes travel? I’m guessing the maximum would be a couple of miles from home?? Also, how do I pay?

Can anyone explain how this works at the microcosmic level?

When my wife and I saw the Oscars shorts programs in the theater last week, we saw a trailer for an upcoming fiction film about this phenomena.

I don’t know the answer - but I agree with your description of the system; Michael Palin covered it in detail on one of his travel shows - utterly amazing - he described how it works (as you did), but not how it works.

There seemed to be little or no labelling or paperwork to assist with routing. I just don’t understand how that’s possible.

The Harvard Business Review had some of the same questions you had.

Their case study can be purchased here:

A nearby academic library probably has a copy, if that’s available to you.

I was hoping someone would check in who has had personal experience with this, or maybe has a friend or relative who uses the service.

I’ll look into that Harvard study. Thx.

try this one

I had never heard of this until about 10 minutes ago. This video is short and to the point. I’m fascinated.

I love Bollywood movies, and somehow I have been totally unaware of this phenomena until seeing the trailer I mentioned earlier, followed by this thread. It’s as if they hired a publicist. It must be considered such a normal and mundane part of life in Mumbai that nobody thought to include it in a movie.

According to Wiki, many of the carriers are illiterate, so they use colours and symbols.

(no they won’t. Harvard Business School Press will not sell cases to libraries. If you want to read it, you’ll need to purchase a copy for yourself. I have to explain this to business students who come to the library multiple times a year.)
But yes, the service is fascinating and I’m glad you asked - I’d heard about it, but hadn’t paid much attention beyond “oh that’s a neat system” but now I’m fascinated from the overview video linked in the OP.

The BBC website had an interesting piece (including video) on Dabbawallahs a few weeks ago and while I was impressed with the way the system works and the service it provides, I kept thinking: Why would I want someone to pick up food from my house and deliver it to me at work for lunch, when I could just take it with me to work anyway?

I get the impression its one of those things which is just part of Bombay’s culture because people like it despite technology having moved on - and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

I wonder…is lunch provided this way the norm or the exception in Mumbai? Surely there are restaurants in the working areas, are there not? When I go to work, I look forward to NOT having to eat the same stuff I get at home.

And as someone else asked, why not carry lunch with you from home to school or office yourself? Why the middlewallah?

The comments on the video I posted say that the typical workday is so long and the commute is also very long and difficult that bringing lunch actually makes it harder because they need both hands and because by the time lunch rolls around the food is no longer hot and fresh.

So bringing food that same, long distance is better than using a nearby restaurant? The schools have no lunch facilities? And is the only good food hot? No one eats coldcuts, chips, cheese, bread, salads and fruit in India?

Besides, the tiffins shown in closeup look like they aren’t insulated much anyway.

Some of the foods you mentioned (coldcuts especially) are not part of the traditional cuisine in India, although Subway and other chains are surprisingly common.

I think the idea is that the working husband is leaving for work quite early before his wife or the cook has made lunch for the day.

Need both hands? They don’t have shoulder bags or messenger bags or backpacks any other male-acceptable totally not a purse carrying device in India?

I can’t see how the food is either hot or fresh when it arrives from its 2 hour commute either.

The tiffins are packed into insulated bags.

The impression I get from the films I see, and it might be wildly wrong, is that Indian society values employing as many people as possible, a sort of middle-class noblesse oblige. Yes, 200 people in a building could bring their lunch from home employing nobody, or troop down to the Subway, employing just a few people. Instead, they have a system that employes a huge number of people. These folks do the job with a high level of accuracy for very little. But as most of them are illiterate, they might not be otherwise employable.

A friend who shot a corporate film in India said that each piece of rental equipment came with a handler. Not just cameras and sound equipment, but every single light and stand.

What needs to be studied is how illiterate carriers can provide such accurate and reliable services. That data needs to be integrated with IT for the betterment of all.

A lot of what I’m going to say is true of older generations, but might be changing for young people, so take it as you will.

There are many possible reasons for adult, middle-class Indian professionals to prefer home-cooked food for lunch rather than going to restaurants.

  1. Restaurant culture is relatively new to Indian society (it has only become popular since the 1980s for middle-class people) and may be seen as inherently extravagant.

  2. Many Indian professionals don’t want to spend the time or trouble going out to lunch. Tiffin is brought to them at their desks and can be eaten conveniently.

  3. Restaurant food is often much more rich than home-cooked food and thus more full of fat.

  4. In a city like Bombay, with an incredibly diverse population, there are many different groups with different food restrictions:

  • Vegetarian Hindus can’t eat food made in a kitchen in which meat products are also used.

  • Strict vegetarian Hindus don’t eat garlic or onions.

  • Non-vegetarian Hindus don’t eat beef

  • Muslims don’t eat pork

  • Jains are not only vegetarian, but they eat no root vegetables

In these subcultures, you can’t just “pick out” offending ingredients from a dish and eat the rest. If an offending ingredient has touched anything in a dish, the entire dish is contaminated.

There is always some degree of suspicion about the ingredients of food or conditions in which they are made. It’s safer to eat home-cooked food.

  1. Specific individuals might have even more idiosyncratic restrictions. For example, a non-vegetarian Hindu might be non-garlic, non-onion vegetarian on Thursdays, based on a promise to his personal deity or on the advice of an ayurvedic “healer.”

  2. The midday meal (eaten between 1 and 4 in the afternoon) is traditionally the main meal of the day and the one in which people would particularly want to have home-cooked food.

  3. Food made by mother/wife traditionally has a special status to a person and would be preferred to restaurant food, especially for children. Women often have particular ideas about what their children should eat (a lot of them based on superstitions or old wives tales) and thus are more comfortable supplying their children’s food themselves. A lot of this has to do with the (very restricted) role of women in traditional society—if you aren’t a good mother, then you aren’t a good woman. A good woman feeds her children well.

  4. Many Indians are set in their ways when it comes to food and don’t need variety beyond that available from home-cooked food. Additionally, if a person preferred, even given all these restrictions, home-cooked food can be of enormous variety. One of my cousins, who has lived all his life in cosmopolitan Bombay and has experienced all the variety of food available there, on a routine daily basis (not on special occasions), still wants the traditional Bengali meal featuring fish and rice twice a day (lunch and dinner).

  5. Going to all this trouble can still be much cheaper and more convenient than eating out.

Coldcuts, chips, cheese, and bread are not considered “proper” food and not palatable to Indian food culture. They’re western-style snack foods, and can be: (a) expensive, (b) inconvenient to locate, © considered unwholesome, (d) considered children’s food, (e) disliked by middle-class adults, or (f) possibly containing ingredients that individuals shun for religious or other reasons (pork, beef, etc.).

Moreover, there is a tremendous suspicion regarding food that has been stored for any length of time, particularly in a refrigerator. My wife had a landlady who would unplug the refrigerator every night, because she thought it was poisoning the food.

My Indian relatives want fresh-cooked for for every meal. The idea of eating food that has been refrigerated or stored for half a day or more is extremely unappetizing to them.

When they have visited, they wouldn’t so much as touch a loaf of sliced bread that was purchased more than a day prior. They certainly don’t like the idea of preserved meats (cold cuts) or aged cheese. They were repulsed if they were served the same dish of food for two meals in a row.

Fruit is commonly eaten as a snack, not as a meal in and of itself. Salads are not popular in India; vegetables are preferred cooked in spicy dishes. Especially outside the home, raw vegetables are not considered hygienic or safe.

Commuting by train in Bombay is like going to war. You need both arms free. You never know when you might be climbing on the roof of the train car or hanging off the side from a window bar. Even if you’re inside, you need both arms to push people out of the way, and anything you might be carrying with you is liable to be victim to pickpockets and purse snatchers. Additionally, tiffin carriers (the interlocking stacks of metal boxes that are used to transport food) are bulky and heavy

Most professional offices employ a staff whose official title is “peon.” Peons make tea twice a day, fetch lunch, courier documents and packages, go out to bring lunch and snacks, etc.