Dabbawalas: Delivering change


Mumbai’s dabbawalas are clubbing online platforms and area-based delivery modes with low labour costs to keep their business hot and fresh, and their client base intact

In January this year, when Subodh Sangle, a spokesperson and consultant for the Mumbai Dabbawalas Association, said during a presentation at IIM Ahmedabad that the association plans to start a company and expand their brand by also delivering organic milk, vegetables and similar products, the general feeling was that Mumbai’s iconic lunch delivery system was waking up to the challenge posed by app-based food delivery startups.

Sangle’s announcement was the latest in a string of changes that the association had spoken of over the past year, including starting a website and tying up with ecommerce site Flipkart for last-mile delivery — all of which appeared to point to a shrinking customer base. After all, food tech startups allow customers more flexibility in terms of time of delivery and choices while dabbawalas operate to a largely fixed plan.

The real picture, however, says despite the competition posed by food ordering platforms, the city’s 5,000 dabbawalas have actually lost very few of their clientele. This is because their client base — around two lakh — is pretty much self-replenishing, says Subhash Talekar, general secretary of the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association.

“This number has been stable for the past seven to eight years because new customers keep getting added as some old ones leave. There are two types of new customers who come to us — those in the 35-40 age group who have developed certain health conditions and have been advised by their doctors to have home-cooked food, and school children whose parents want them to eat healthy. When they pass out of school, there are always new kids coming into the system” says Talekar.

New customers, he says add to their original client base which is mainly from western suburbs like Jogeshwari, Goregaon and Kandivali and mostly from the Gujarati and Marwari communities, known to be particular about how their food is prepared and prefer home-cooked lunches.

New modes of delivery

What has changed is the range of delivery with the dabbawalas’ now operating beyond the traditional commercial areas in south Mumbai. This, says Talekar, has led to changes being introduced to ensure the business remains stable.

“Our traditional model uses handcarts. In Churchgate for instance, you’ll see a lot of dabbawalas using handcarts because there are a lot of lunches to be delivered to offices not far from each other. In other areas, the modes of delivery have gradually changed,” he adds.

While using bicycles made sense in areas like Lower Parel and Bandra, dabbawalas acquired a fleet of nearly a 100 scooters last year to service places like Andheri and Bandra-Goregaon Link Road where deliveries are picking up.

“This makes delivery easier and also saves time,” says Vittal Sawant, also a general secretary of the association. After 5 pm, when work ends, dabbawalas can use the bikes to moonlight as delivery boys for Flipkart, which fetches them Rs 24 per delivery.

“This is not for everybody; some of us feel we don’t need the extra money, but we do acknowledge the fact that we are more of a stable business than a growing one and if some of our members feel they need to augment their income then they should have the opportunity,” says Talekar.


Their entry into the ecommerce sector, thus, has been from a position of strength rather than disadvantage. While the association’s move to go online last year for registering new customers was seen as an attempt to reach out to newer, more upwardly mobile clients, it was also a recognition of the fact that the traditional mode of client recruitment needed a revamp.

Talekar says, “It used to be quite simple: the building’s watchman would recognise a dabbawala in his neighbourhood by his cap and connect him with a resident who needed the service. With people moving further and further away and to new types of housing societies, we decided that the Internet was a good tool to continue our interaction with clients.”

While there has been some opposition within their ranks to a total revamp and starting a company, the changes have been carefully calibrated to ensure that delivering dabbas continues to be a successful business model without overstretching the deliverymen.

Talekar concedes that while these changes have largely been accepted over the past year or so, the association, which has periodic meetings to discuss new ideas and grievances, is somewhat resistant to drastically changing the business model. A few months earlier, Talekar had suggested that dabbawalas open a ‘mess’ kitchen in Lower Parel where their wives could cook and put them in the food production business as well . The idea, he says, was quickly shot down.

Labour-intensive but cost-effective

A consultant who has worked with companies like Holachef and the Delhi-based Bite Club says the major advantage that dabbawalas have is their prioritisation and perfection of a simple delivery model.

“The quality of labour that they need to employ is significantly different because there is almost no customer interface. They don’t need literate workers because they follow a delivery system where packages are delivered to customers using an alphanumeric code. By and large, customers are locked into a fixed meal plan since the food comes from home. Often, they don’t even see the person who will finally deliver the tiffin box,” he explains.

In the case of food tech companies, he adds, the delivery service becomes subjective rather than objective as the deliverer has to interact with the customer, have a basic understanding of numbers and be able to answer queries in case of problems with the order.

As the cost of hiring delivery personnel and call centre staff has gone up significantly over the past few years, the dabbawalas’ use of cheap public transport and labour has allowed them to offer the most economical rates. “The most expensive monthly package for delivery is between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500 a month, and that’s if the food has to be delivered from a far-flung suburb like Virar to the city centre. For most, it’s much cheaper than that,” says Anant Purandare, a marketing executive who has used dabbawalas for a decade. In terms of just the cost, he adds, it is much cheaper than ordering out or through an app-based food company that prepares food in a central kitchen, since the amount you pay your dabbawala does not take the food cost into account.

New frontiers or areas of delivery: andheri East, lower Parel, BKC, bandra goregaon link road

Locations with most dabbawala customers: jogeshwari, goregaon, kandivali, borivali, virar

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2018 6:27:13 PM |