Better Than Food Truck: An Amazing Lunch Box System

05/18/2015 01:40 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

We all dream of homemade cooking and artisan recipes, but most of us at lunch have ridiculously bland choices such as fast food chains and generic restaurants. Food trucks have improved this scenario for some years now, but still nothing beats Mom's simple meals or your own cooking done the night before that you take to work in a lunch box.

In Mumbai, India, a clever and intricate solution was created a long time ago by savvy local entrepreneurs who decided that they wanted their wives' cooking at each lunch - and at their desk. The lunch box system works like a well-oiled machine. It's simple but yet incredibly full of hurdles.

The way it works is that while a man leaves his house early in the morning to go to his office, sometimes far away, as the giant city has tentacles reaching massive distances, their stay-at-home wives start cooking at mid-morning a complete meal for their husbands. The secret is that the food needs to be hot when it reaches its destination. Enters the clever delivery network.

The dabbawalas.

Then the incredible starts to happen: a messenger dressed all in white and wearing a white Gandhi cap, while riding a bike, comes to the front door to collect the lunch box, called a Tiffin, made of several stacks of stainless steel round containers held together firmly by a metal clasp that won't ever allow any leak, and buried inside a thermal bag with a handle of various colors. The coding on the top is of the essence.

The messenger, called a dabbawala, carrying sometimes two dozen Tiffin boxes on his bike, meets other members of the chain at the train station or at a truck, waiting to pack together hundreds of lunch boxes, each marked with a specific color code indicating their final destination - a neighborhood, a building, a floor, a department, and finally a desk.

The train or truck then takes off with the multitude of lunch boxes to be delivered and arrive at a central point where new messengers pick up their cargo for the day and deliver it to the exact spot marked on the box. The office worker will find his lunch package on his desk with not a word exchanged.

The dabbawallas usually only have 40 seconds to load the crates of lunch boxes onto a train at major stations, and just 20 seconds at interim stops. But yet, none are ever misplaced. Don't we just wish our suitcases at airports would receive such a treatment?

The food will still be hot, thanks to the steel material and the thermal bag. The menu supplied will vary according to what the wife, or mother, or sister, or daughter-at-home will have concocted for that day. After lunch is done, the messenger (most likely the same one) comes back to pick up the empty containers from the worker's desk, and the same trip takes place in return to end up back at the home.

The amazing feast (so to speak) is that a Tiffin is never lost or misplaced. Watch the wonderful Indian film "The Lunch Box" and you will understand the intricacy and the volume of the mind-boggling adventure of a lunch box. Many Indians are vegetarian and eat a lot of rice, vegetables, stuffed or dry fruits, soup, bread in the form of a puffed tortilla, sauces in various stages of spiciness - some will sometimes eat fish, sometimes lamb, a lot of chickpeas.

The cafeteria in most office buildings offer tables, chairs and water for free. Tea can be had for a few cents. A lot of office workers rely on their lunch box and never go out to lunch, although the younger generations enjoy fast food joints or restaurants if they can afford them, but street food sold in stands or on the sidewalks have a poor hygienic reputation.

The less fortunate eaters bring a few fruits for their lunch if they don't have anyone at home who can cook for them. The system can also work with a restaurant that takes lunch order and where the messengers pick up the meals in the same fashion. In that case, the worker pays monthly for his lunches and eat each day whatever the restaurant has on the menu for that day.

Some women make a home business of cooking for others and prepare meals everyday for several customers who use the lunch box system as well. Sometimes it requires several messengers to come to the house as they don't all serve the same districts of the vast city. And in the same way, the containers will be returned to the house after lunch time.


The city by the Arabian Sea, formerly known as Bombay, is the largest metropolis of India, with a population of over 18 million. The train commuting system used by Indians workers and students carries about 7 million each day - the highest passenger densities of any urban railway system in the world. Enough to put any subway transport to shame.

Many workers leave their homes at dawn in order to get to work by seven a.m., and won't need their food before noon, so the reliable messengers usually pick up the lunch boxes (also called dabba) around 11 a.m. to make it by lunch time. The service cost about $7 per month, where a monthly average salary amounts to about $350, sometimes less.

The 5,000 dabbawalas of Mumbai have an impeccable service record. Each work day, they transport about 130,000 lunchboxes throughout the city, and because it's a round-trip voyage, it amounts to conducting some 260,000 transactions in a few hours. Mistakes are so rare that Forbes and the Harvard Business School have studied the model business of the dabbawalas.

Usually semi-literate, they have reached a high level of performance at very low cost and in an eco-friendly way. The fool-proof delivery had business watchers wondering how it is possible for the lunches to never be late or misplaced, or misdirected. The Harvard School of Business sent researchers to India to study the impossible system and audit it, to their great surprise when they realized that indeed the lunches were always on time and precisely delivered.

The messengers make a living out of this, it's a real trade, and a stable one as well, as there will always be people needing lunch. Often they ride in the rain and wind, but no matter, the food will get there and the clients will be happy. With the arrival of cell phones and instant messages, the little paper messages sometimes left in the tin from the wife to her husband tend to disappear in favor on modern technology communication - but the food transport is not dying anytime soon!