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Dabbawalas: The food courier service in Mumbai

The «dabbawalas» of Mumbai form a unique chain of service which is a legacy more than a job. The success of this business is an example of the value of home cooked food for Indians

Rahul Singh is a Spanish teacher, translator, traveller, foodie.

With thousands of people daily coming to the City of Dreams, the high quality restaurants of Mumbai manage to take away much of the culinary limelight. The money-mad city hosts these extravagant restaurants so as to soothe the palate of the upper crust. Meanwhile, the working class of the city still prefer the conventional but yet heartwarming homemade food. To keep up with the pace of this city, it is nearly impossible to carry Tiffins to work, and hence, the great majority prefers the service of Mumbai Dabbawalas.

This 5,000-employee organisation has managed to serve its clients with an unbelievable track record for the past 125 years. Always in a white kurta pyjama and a traditional Gandhi cap, these Mumbai dabbawalas wear a pretty discernible demeanour. You would be mistaken if you considered them as caterers. These people are simply the facilitators that pick up the lunch from their clients’ house and deliver it to the specified address before lunchtime. Empty Tiffins are then carried back from the delivery address to the clients’ house after lunch. Never missing a train, the Mumbai dabbawalas are known as ‘Management Gurus’ for earning the well-deserved Six Sigma certification, due to their impeccable management and proven track record. Many renowned universities and colleges have used the complex coding system dabbawalas use to understand and adopt better management skills and practices.

The ‘Mumbai Dabbawalas’ manage to handle almost 400,000 end deliveries within 3-4 hours on a daily basis. Every Tiffin may change hands at least 6 times in transit before it reaches its consumer, and the same trail on the return journey. That makes it close to at least 2.4 million manual movements for all the Tiffin boxes in a day. As there is no time to sit and sort the boxes, these people usually do this while in transit in the trains.


Never missing a train, the Mumbai dabbawalas are known as ‘Management Gurus’ for earning the well deserved Six Sigma certification for their impeccable management and a proven track record.


What distinguishes this system from others is that apart from the movement in trains, everything is manually handled and managed by these people. The failure or mistake rate recorded in the service of these Mumbai dabbawalas is 1 in 16 million end deliveries. And that is not necessarily by human failure. Having maintained an exemplary record of no strikes and no court cases since their inception, Mumbai dabbawalas are amongst the top 50 entrepreneurs of the country.

Battling with time and the famous Mumbai weather, a normal working day of a dabbawala ends with a great emotional satisfaction and happiness as they firmly believe in the philosophy of ‘Anna Daan Maha Daan’ which means donating food is the best charity.

However, these people have a deeper connection with the middle class Mumbai crowd and their food. The idea of getting home cooked food delivered for lunch was first suggested by a Parsi banker, who assigned this job to the first ever dabbawala. From the success of this idea, a food delivery system came up which now serves more than 200,000 people every noon. The curious eyes at the door at lunchtime stay reassured every single time a sumptuous home cooked meal come to their table without a delay of a single minute than the designated time.

For many families, the business of dabbawalas has been a legacy that has been passed from one generation to another along with the same compassion and diligence that the previous generation bore towards their work. Rakesh is the third-generation dabbawala in his family who had always seen his father and grandfather get dressed in their uniform every single morning to go to work. He remembers, ‘No matter how the weather is outside, my grandfather always asked me to iron his white kurta pyjama and Gandhi cap every morning before leaving for work. He didn’t miss a day and every evening he told me how happy his customers were that day. I am not very old in this business but what really pushed me to continue the same work was the satisfaction my father and grandfather used to get after a full day at work. He would often tell me that there is nothing more gratifying than knowing that you are the reason someone enjoys their delectable Tiffin every day.


The ‘Mumbai Dabbawalas’ manage to handle almost 400,000 end deliveries within 3-4 hours on a daily basis


There are many reasons why these people are so popular with the Mumbai crowd. Apart from those who like to keep a closer eye on their money, this delivery system also serves the purpose for those on specific diets due to choice, health problems or religious constraints. But as for me, nothing would take the edge off better than my favourite food for lunch. And I think this is the main reason why this business has been such a success so far.

Sharmila, a housewife living in Mumbai, swears by the credibility and professionalism of the Mumbai dabbawalas. She shyly recalls ‘one morning, my husband and I had a quarrel and he left for the office in a rush. However, my anger did not stop me from making his favourite food for lunch and sending it to his office. Only that day, I sent a small note of apology in his Tiffin. I spent the next couple of hours in anxiety, thinking about how his mood would be in the evening. When his Tiffin box arrived in the afternoon, I found two tickets for a movie date inside. For me, the dabbawalas don’t only deliver the food I cook for my husband but also my love for him, every single day.’

Bikas belongs to a working class family and lives in Mumbai. Putting in a good word for the Mumbai dabbawalas he claims to have found the safest way to send his monthly salary home. He stated that ‘My payday is the scariest day for me. I would always worry about my salary getting stolen or snatched in the crowded local trains of Mumbai. Once I came up with the idea of sending my salary home in my Tiffin box just to check if that worked for me. Since that day, I have made it a practice to send my salary home the very same way. With the dabbawalas handling my Tiffin, I am always sure that not a single penny would be missing from my stash.’

Usually, people are very close to their heirloom recipes and home cooked food. It is the most distinguished attribute of this kind of food that comforts us in ways more than one. We all have our special memories that are brought back to us every time we smell the aroma of a home cooked delicacy that is close to our heart. This magic can only be woven in a home kitchen and served with love and dedication in a Tiffin box for us to savour and share. For all this, I’d like to thank to the dabbawalas who have been the intermediaries for not only food but love and trust amidst the maddening crowd and pace of Mumbai for over a century

Copyright images: Rahul Singh


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