Lunchtime in Mumbai

Mumbai, India. There is an extraordinary event that takes place in this city every day around lunch time. No other city could replicate it, and all the brains of Harvard couldn’t figure out how it’s done.

Men called dabbawalas provide a tiffin lunchbox delivery and return system that picks up hot lunches from homes spread out around the city and from restaurants and then delivers them to people at work in Mumbai. When we say “at work,” what that means is that Mama or Auntie or the wife cooks a meal at home in the morning, packs it in a tiffin container, puts that into a thermal case and waits for a dabbawalla to pick it up in late morning.

Next, via a commuter train or bicycle, the dabbawala brings the tiffin to the central commuter train station, where it is sorted by its ultimate destination, then delivered by bicycle to the actual desk or specific place of work of the intended recipient in time for lunch about 1PM. Later, the tiffin is picked up, returned to the station, and then to the home of the cook, arriving before the man of the house comes home to the suburbs from work.

We waited outside Churchgate train station around 11:20, and then we could feel the pace begin to quicken. Men carrying bundles of tiffins or skids of dozens on their heads began running out of the station. The skids were lowered to the ground to certain specific places around the station, and then sorted into groups, which eventually were packed onto bicycles and left for their final destinations.

(A tiffin, for those unfamiliar, can refer to the midday meal, or just to the containers that the meal comes in, like bento boxes, designed to keep several dishes separate and warm. Sample below, but that’s just one of an enormous variety available.)

You think that’s an amazing service for about $1 a day? But then, how about the fact that between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas? And the fact that – literacy issues being what they are – the sorting and management system is invisible to the outsider. There are no tags or color cues, or bar codes on the containers. But the most astonishing thing is that there has never been a mix-up in the delivery system. Nobody ever got the wrong lunch, or no lunch, since the service began in 1890. (Okay, to be honest, their error rate is less than one per six million transactions.) An intense study by the Harvard Business School could not understand by what magic this all happens every day. Amazing what guys without an MBA or suits can accomplish.

We highly recommend the 2013 Bollywood film The Lunchbox, based on this service. It takes the most charming liberty, but does a great job of showing the scope of this incredible operation.

Watching just this small part of it was highly entertaining. What an amazing service and a genius process! We felt so fortunate to have seen it in action.

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