Mumbai’s world-renowned tiffin service is no longer the preserve of loyal housewives cooking up generations-old family dishes to be delivered to their husbands’ offices by the city’s famous “dabbawallahs”.
Now a host of health-conscious young start-ups are using – and sometimes superseding – the dabbawallahs to deliver lunches catering to all diets, with tailored menus offering an array of global cuisines online.
The 5000 or so lunchbox delivery men, instantly recognisable by their white cotton uniforms and Nehru caps, pedal through Mumbai’s congested streets carrying everything from Thai to Mexican, as well as healthy takes on local favourites.
“The number of tiffins (meals) being sent by food companies has gone up sharply in the past few years,” said Raghunath Medage, president of Mumbai’s dabbawallah union.
“The share of homemade food we carry has fallen from 100 per cent to around 60 per cent, and we expect that number to keep dropping.”
Dabbawallahs, literally meaning “box carriers”, have been plying Mumbai’s streets for well over a century.
They featured in the hit 2013 Indian film The Lunchbox centring on the story of a wife whose home-cooked meals were collected by a dabbawallah and then delivered, incorrectly, to a stranger’s office rather than her husband’s.
But now many of the meals inside the tin containers that clatter against each other as they hang from the dabbawallahs’ rickety bicycles are hand-picked on the internet by busy professionals enjoying a wealth of choice.
Yummy Tiffins, which proudly bills itself as “India’s first customised online tiffin service”, allows users to design their own menus from about 40 dishes for every day of the week up to a month in advance.
“We wanted to fill the gap between a tiffin service, which has the same old pattern of food, and a restaurant, where you can order whatever you want, by providing customers with a choice of options that still have a homely feel,” said founder Pratik Jain.
“There’s a lot of variety in the menu, not just Indian food but international too, and plenty of healthy options as well,” the 29-year-old former management student told AFP.
The website, which Jain says has about 300 users a day and is growing at about 70 per cent a year, has teamed up with a nutritionist who designs low-calorie meals to attract health-conscious customers.
“It’s a competitive business with lots of players in the market. It’s much more professional now with several tech-savvy start-ups, and people keep switching from one tiffin service to another,” Jain said.
Tina Parikh, an office worker in the south of the city, said she orders from a company called SoulCare because it allows her to focus on her job.
“It’s purely about convenience,” Parikh told AFP, collecting her tiffin from a handcart.
“Early in the morning, to cook meals and then come to work gets a little tiring.”
Her friend Vinayak Azad has stuck to home-cooked food but joked that he may consider switching to one of the many low-calorie alternatives whipped up by professional chefs.
“There are a lot of good services around and I think I should try them considering my tummy is still out even with home food,” Azad said.
Yummy Tiffins employs Mumbai’s famously efficient dabbawallahs who deliver lunches to about 200,000 people a day via trains, bicycles and handcarts using a complex colour-coded alpha-numeric system admired the world over.
Their business model has been recognised by Harvard as working to a “six sigma” rating, meaning it is virtually unheard of for a lunch to be delivered to the wrong place.
But some caterers are moving away from the dabbawallahs in favour of private delivery vans.
Maqsood Patel, co-founder of Foodizm, another online meal delivery firm, said his company was increasingly opting for a concierge service to ferry lunches to their “elite” clientele.
“They deliver the meals right to the customers’ desks, whereas the dabbawallahs often drop them at the front gate and you have to go downstairs to look for your meal,” Patel told AFP.
“Also, since they travel by train, there can be a three- or four-hour gap from the time a dabbawallah collects the meal to the time it’s delivered. Obviously, with the food travelling in the heat, something like a salad can go a little bit off.”
But Medage, president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, is unconcerned.
“We are still getting fresh recruits from villages because not many opportunities exist there,” Medage said.
“With hard work, they can make at least 10,000 rupees ($A214) a month instead of nothing back home.”