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Mumbai Dabbawala: Legend of a Common Man

Mumbai Dabbawala

Mumbai is a place where miracles happen every day; this ranges from travelers safely commuting x3 the capacity of the ‘Local Train’ to people spending more time traveling than they spend at home. Between all the chaos, a beautiful and an exceptional art of management occurs, flawlessly. Management so faultless, even institutions like Harvard & Stanford could not resist exploring it. Co-ordination is so excellent that, billion-dollar firms like Flipkart and Fed-Ex opened up the gates for business partnerships. The mind-boggling part: all this done by an ordinary man. We are mentioning none other than the “Dabbawala” or the “Tiffin Walla” of Mumbai.


Mumbai Dabbawala

Mumbai Dabbawala

Dabbawala or Tiffinwala refers to a person who delivers food parcels from ‘A’ to ‘B.’ ‘A’ stands for the individuals who seek work from home opportunities, and ‘B’ refers to the folks (usually corporates) who find it time-consuming to cook food and then leave for their gig. ‘Dabba’ literally means a box and ‘wala’ is a suffix.

Dabbawala service initiated in 1890 when the Paris and the British societies needed lunch at their convenience. It later turned into a large scale business after the word spread across the city. People might underestimate the facility of being a regular catering service, and so forth. In contrast, they are awfully mistaken. Dabbawalas are a large troop of 5,000 and 635 supervisors, over 4,00,000 daily transactions and a Six Sigma accuracy. You may ask, what does Six Sigma mean? Well, it confirms an error probability of 1 in 6 million transactions. In the course of 125 years and 16 million delivered Dabbas, the only recorded error occurred in 2005 when a dabbawala was not able to reach on time due to heavy rains in Mumbai. It has been possibly due to a simple coding system followed by the dabbawalas. The code imprinted on the Tiffin is recognized by the dabbawalas. The stats quote that a single ‘Dabba’ or a lunch box goes through six transitions (changes hands) before it reaches the destination and it happens all over while returning the Dabba at its original location. There are slight chances of receiving the Dabba by the same person who took it. Nevertheless, Dabba is delivered irrespective of the weather conditions making it one of the most reliable services in the industry.



Speaking of an individual Dabbawala, he is an equal shareholder of the Dabbawala Association, a proud entrepreneur and earns the same revenue(average of 12,000 a month), regardless of age, experience, and Dabbas served. A total of 5 Dabbawalas squad-up and they chose the most experienced person as the team leader. 200 such teams work on the field for 9 hours straight with a 20 mins lunch break. After this hectic schedule, they work for other odd jobs. To earn some extra bucks, Dabbawalas also offer meals prepared by their wives.

Dabbawalas have to abide by the uniform regulations. Yes, you read it right, they have a uniform with a set of rules. Dabbawala uniform consists of white cotton kurta-pyjama and white Gandhi topi.

Dabbawala in Uniform

Dabbawala in Uniform

In 2003, Prince Charles visited India and decided to meet the dabbawalas at the famous CST stations. The meet-up could only last for about 20 minutes because the dabbawalas could not afford to delay their work. He even invited 2 of the dabbawalas to his wedding in 2005. Following the British royal, in 2005, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson visited India for a business summit and could not hold back meeting the prestigious Dabbawalas. He also traveled along with them to deliver lunch boxes to his employees at Virgin Office in Mumbai.

Many famed Global firms like HUL, Flipkart, Fed-ex, KFC, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and UTI Mutual Funds consulted Dabbawalas for their marketing initiatives. Many documentaries have featured Dabbawalas (click here for the documentary). They also own a record in the ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’ and Guinness book of World Records.

Customers have shared their experiences with dabbawalas and none of them seemed to have been disappointed. They shared how you could get cinema tickets, apology letters, marketing flyers and love messages in the tiffin box. Opting for the Dabbawala service unlocks many fun activities. You sometimes get to try the newest drinks or fast foods in the market for free as a marketing strategy of the companies. You might even find a new partner who cooks food for you on the other side. This has its disadvantages too as the security does a metal detection on the Dabbas delivered. This occasionally delays the time taken for the food delivery by around 5-10 minutes.


Dabbawalas boarding local train

Dabbawalas boarding local train

However, the Dabbawala service is limited to Mumbai. The reason behind is the travel options offered here. Mumbai Dabbawalas highly rely on the local trains which are only available in Mumbai. This makes them unique, and as of now, they do not plan to expand their business in other cities. If you ever visit Mumbai, there are high chances of you meeting a dabbawala in the local train during peak hours.




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