• You were given the 6 Sigma award by Forbes magazine, which means that if your organization delivers six lakh tiffins, it will not misplace more than one. Now you are delivering lectures at the CII, India Economic Summit, do you think all this recognition has come too late?First I would like to thank you on behalf of all of us ‘dabbawalas’• Your operations are so complex that if even one thing goes out of place, it would lead to chaos, so much so that even when Prince Charles came to visit you, you didn’t delay your operations.
It would be difficult to explain how we function, this honour has come to us after 114 years but we get our satisfaction from our work of delivering food to people.
• So you achieved the same perfection as Lata Mangeshkar has in singing or Johnny Lever has in comedy, but a lot of people like me believe that the food you deliver is also cooked by you.
We only deliver food to the people of Mumbai. Food which is cooked in their homes by their wives, sisters or mothers, whatever be their caste, creed or religion.
• Does the tiffin box that the food is delivered in also belong to the customer?
Yes, the food and the tiffin box both belong to the customer. We have a unique colour coding system that we put on the boxes. Our ancestors started by first using coloured threads. Then they switched to using pieces of cloth and now we use oil paint and symbols.
• Can you please explain to us your coding system with the help of these tiffins here.
The yellow colour symbolizes a ‘group’. A group comprises 10 to 20 people who service one station. Just like a cricket team there are a few substitutes in case someone falls ill.
• How does the journey start?
Each group picks up about 40 tiffins from their area and delivers them to the local railway station. There they are sorted according to their destination. The alphabet you see here stands for the person who collects the tiffins from the house, and the number is for its destination.
• You assign numbers for 2 lakh tiffins and there is never any confusion, do you feed the numbers into a computer?
No, we never use computers or any other technology, in fact most of us are uneducated. Our computer is our head and our Gandhi Cap is the computer cover to protect it from the sun or rain.
• How often do you get complaints of someone’s tiffin getting mixed up or lost ?
Once in a month or two we get a complaint. On following up on the complaint we generally find that it was stolen by a hungry beggar. Our people then keep a lookout for it in the market and on spotting it buy it back and return it to the rightful owner. We never misplace anything due to any confusion on our part.
• How have you managed to reach such levels of efficiency with such an untrained work force?
It just depends on hardwork and sincerity, only when you fly high can you reach the stars. The uneducated have an ability to memorize and retain more as opposed to the educated who are used to writing down everything.
• When did you realize that home cooked food is also a brand and maybe a stronger one than even a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut?
Till one is 25-30 years old, you can eat anywhere, but after that home cooked food is what suits the the stomach and health. Our clients now send water along with their tiffins.
• In fact,I have heard of stories of people sending their cheque books and pens along in their tiffins and nothing ever gets misplaced or stolen tiffins and nothing ever gets misplaced or stolen
No, our workers have so much to do that they don’t have the time to open the tiffins.Even if someone in their family falls ill, they first deliver the food and then attend to them.
• Aren’t you worried that, if a case of food poisoning comes up, your reputation would be dented.
Yes, we are worried. Our main aim is customer satisfaction.
• How much do you charge your customers?
We charge Rs 250-300 per month. That includes picking up a tiffin from home delivering it to the office and then returning the empty tiffin back home.
• How many hands does the tiffin pass through before it gets delivered?
It goes through 3 to 4 hands before reaching its destination.
• How do you travel?
Our lifeline is the local train service of Mumbai.There is a train every four minutes. Without them we would not be able to do our business.
• How much money do your workers make?
Each one makes about 5000-6000 per month.
• I have heard that earlier you had workers but now all the people who work with you are shareholders.
Yes, till 1980 it was a worker-employer relationship. There used to be a contractor who would employ 20-25 workers under him.But the railway strike of 1975 under Datta Samant which lasted for 20-22 days, caused huge losses for us.Our losses were further compounded by the Mill Strike. That made us think that what would happen if our workers were to go on strike?
• Your customers would have to go hungry then
Yes, this was the reason that I made every worker a shareholder. This way they would put in more effort and since everyone is a shareholder, there would be no question of a union.
• Is it true that all the people who work with you come from your village or are your relatives?
Yes, all of us belong to Pune and adjoining areas. Our ancestors fought in Shivaji’s army and just the way they had to climb mountains while fighting, we have to climb stairs to deliver to climb stairs to deliver the tiffins.
• How do you think you can expand your business? Will it be limited to just lunch tiffins? Or do you have something else in mind?
We have started advertising on our tiffin boxes by putting stickers on them. This brings in extra income. Till the time there are people, they will feel hungry and till the time they feel hungry our business will keep growing.
• Don’t you feel threatened by competition from McDonald’s or others
• Please tell us about the history of your business.
Our business started in 1890 when the British were here. People from all over the world came here to do business. They required their own food which we delivered. Our founder was Madhav Raoji. My father and his brother joined in and now I have been working here for the last ten years.
• Did you inherit the presidentship or do you hold elections
There are elections and the person getting majority votes becomes the president. There is a show of hands and the person getting the most hands wins.
• Are there ever any disputes?
Yes, there are. But they are settled every month on the 15th of every month by the Panch Committee.
• So you have your own panchayat?
Yes, we have our own mini-government which levies a fine on the workers for making mistakes like not turning up for duty or drinking alcohol while on duty.
• Have any of your disputes reached the police or the courts
• Does your business model work in Mumbai just because of the local trains or will it work in other cities like Delhi, Bangalore or Calcutta as well?
When I went to Delhi for a CII conference, a lot of people asked me this question. I dont think we would be successful in other cities because in Delhi for example, the Metro is not fully functional, I have no idea about Calcutta as I have never been there and in a city like Bangalore people have very similar eating habits.
• What are the challenges your business is facing. I have heard that every year your business grows by 25,000 to 30,000 boxes.
We lose a few customers too each year but are more than compensated with the additions. We grow annually by about 10%.
• Share with us some of the experiences.
We pick up the tiffins from the homes at around 9 in the morning. But it happens so often that when our worker reaches there the people are busy with their morning chores. This creates a problem so after giving them a couple of warnings, we leave without their tiffins. So in a sense the women are more scared of us than their husbands.
• You have International recognition now. Has that helped your community in any way?
Even Prince Charles came to meet us. It seems that people study for so many years and then get a degree, it is the opposite for us. After 114 years of work we are getting this.
• I have heard that now you even go abroad to give speeches on your business model?
Yes, Dr Vandana Shiva took us to Italy for a meeting on organic food. We didn’t like the food there as the people there do not cook fresh food. They all eat tinned foods.
• How did the people there react to you?
They are amazed that uneducated people like us can carry out a business like ours so accurately. They rely on their call centres for every small problem whereas we have to be accurate with our delivery every single time.