It is a low-tech, high-volume service that has Western business management experts flocking to the crowded, dusty streets of Mumbai. Each weekday, the Tiffin delivery network provides hot, home-cooked meals to a growing population of office workers in India’s financial capital. From the city’s outer suburbs to the bustling downtown core, the small, aluminum boxes are transported, sorted and delivered – to over 200,000 customers, for less than $10 per month. No easy feat – and one made all the more remarkable by the statistics. For every 6 million deliveries, there is – on average – only one misplaced meal. It’s this honed precision that is drawing worldwide attention from business schools, financial media outlets, and curious CEO’s – but there’s more to Tiffin that just great numbers.
The network itself is a long-standing cultural tradition, created in 1880 while the country was still under British rule. Many British residents, commuting into the city, weren’t interested in consuming the local fare, while Indian citizens weren’t able to afford the daily cost of lunchtime dining. So Tiffin, old English for light lunch, was born – providing a welcomed, low-cost service for finicky eaters, or – as is more often the case today – ensuring that those with strict religious dietary beliefs can enjoy a well-prepared meal, worry-free. Each day, a courier would collect prepared meals from the customer’s home for lunchtime delivery at their workplace. It was a unique solution that has now become part of the city’s daily heartbeat – with a customer base that continues to expand between 5 – 10% annually.
Mumbai Lunch on Wheels
The daily delivery – and precision – of the network relies on a small army of mostly-illiterate, uneducated peasants from the country’s Pune region, called dabbawallas. Each morning, the 5,000 dabbawallas are dispatched on their routes via bicycle, visiting each customer’s home to pick up their food-laden tiffin. The tiffins (alternatively, called dabbas) are then transported to the local train station, where they are divided up according to the painted symbols adorning the containers. The color-coded system acts as an indicator of precise destination – to the building – and recipient, and as a marker of where the emptied box will be delivered after lunch. On an average day, each tiffin is re-sorted at various points on the route up to 4 times before delivery – and then again as the box is returned to its original destination later in the afternoon.
The success of the entire enterprise rests squarely on the shoulders of the dabbawallas – and it is a responsibility they approach with utmost seriousness. Each tiffin must be picked up, sorted, transported and delivered according to a highly precise schedule – while contending with inclement weather, bustling city streets, and strict train schedules. With little exception, dabbawallas are chosen if they have a friend or relative who is already in the service to ensure than new hires are trust-worthy and capable of meeting the substantial requirements of the job. Additionally, a new dabbawalla must also contribute a small sum to pay for two bicycles, a transport crate and their uniform and cap.
For over a century, the Tiffin network’s tried and tested low-tech methods have provided hot meals to the office workers of Mumbai with unmatched accuracy. Relying on the abilities and dedication of its couriers, it is a highly-choreographed, immaculately precise system. And with their track record, it’s no wonder that the Western world is finally taking notes.