Dabbawalas away, lunch pangs set in

Written By Unknown on Minggu, 05 April 2015 | 22.23

At 9.30 every morning, Jamshyd Cooper feels like a Masterchef contestant. As an impatient figure waits at his door, this vet nervously packs the last of his ten dabbas, lines them up by the lift and resolves to finish before the doorbell rings the next day. If Cooper, who runs a dog tiffin venture, crosses the deadline by even three minutes, Gopale mama is likely to lose his good humour.

But Gopale mama, like 5,000 other dabbawalas of Mumbai, has been away on his paid six-day biannual leave since April 1. And Cooper's world has turned upside down. As if on auto-pilot, he wakes up early to finish cooking and packing by 9am so that his assistant, Mohammed Nayyum Khan, can then do in four sweaty hours what Gopale mama and his army do in one.

Armed with a backpack carrying pet food, Khan has been boarding the luggage compartment of trains at Mumbai Central, braving the crowds at Dadar, hailing cabs to Prabhadevi, rushing to Andheri, taking the Metro to Versova, grabbing a bite and alighting from autot rickshaws at Borivali all to deliver dabbas to the 10 pet owners by lunchtime. Each journey costs almost Rs 500, a day's earnings for Cooper. "But I can't afford to shut my services," says the vet. "Some ask why their food has come early, some ask why it's late," says Khan.

With the dabbawalas on a pilgrimage, it is as if Mumbai's spine, too, has gone missing. The Harvard-recognized brigade belongs to a bhakti sect, Warkari, and once in April and then during Diwali, they take off to Pune, Ahmednagar and other districts in western Maharashtra. "Not to enjoy, but to pray," points out association secretary Subhash Talekar.

This break interferes with the body clock of roughly 1.5 lakh Mumbaikars accustomed to a largely faceless delivery man who sets down their dabbas at their office desks and disappears. So, customers have had to cook, carry meals or eat out since Wednesday. But even on their days off, it appears that the six-sigma dabbawalas are instilling crucial management lessons in their customers. The staff at SpiceBox! Tiffin service tied up with private logistics companies to make sure their 1,000-odd customers did not feel the dabbawalas' absence. Together, they stayed up nights, studying and mapping their network. "We have divided the teams into six clusters to handle different parts of the city," says founder Gurmeet Kochchar, adding that they are using vans and bikes instead of trains. In 2011, when his service had just launched, the circular announcing the week-long leave had dropped on Kochhar like a bomb. "We were ill-equipped then," says the investment banker-turned-entrepreneur, adding that he has been strategizing an alternative system of delivery for almost a year now.

Though this system cost him 20% more this year, the sleepless nights paid off as "we could achieve 100% success," says Kochhar, whose clients are scattered all over the city. Gradually, services such as Tif fin Mantra are planning to phase out, if not cut off, their umbilical cord with the dabbawalas.

Ishmeet Chaidok of Harley's Corner, a line of pet food which had started off as a daily dabba service in Mumbai, says his experience with dabbawalas was not "six sigma". "Some dabbawalas didn't like dogs, some didn't want to climb up to higher floors," says Chaidok, who evolved a smart system to deal with the bi-annual breaks. He would send food for the entire week in freezersafe, microwave-friendly containers.

However, given their affordability and reach, the dabbawalas are still a highly coveted army. While their break brings more business to restaurants such as Status at Nariman Point, it forces many tiffin businesses such as Vegan Bites and Shonali Sabherwal's Soulfood to remain shut. For Sabherwal, a macrobiotic consultant and chef, the worst part is reading the texts her health-conscious lawyer clients have been sending from a different kind of court. "You are forcing us to go to the food court now," they complain.

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