The Dabbawalas: A Master Class in Entrepreneurship
Ten years ago, the founders of EAT Club were studying at Stanford when they heard of the dabbawalas of India. They were astounded by the dabbawalas’ ability to deliver individual meals at huge scale across cities daily and on time, all done without any sophisticated tools. Below is the story of that inspiration.
It’s early morning in the steamy depths of India’s greatest metropolis: Mumbai. Five thousand Gandhi-capped men - and a handful of women - start mobilizing to deliver 200,000 meals (a staggering 80 million meals a year) to hungry office workers, in a multi-generational, 130-year-old tradition dating back to the British Raj. Semi-literate, these couriers carry racks of meals weighing 145 pounds on their heads and are just able to read the addresses denoted by hand-painted codes and colors on tiffins, traditional stainless steel containers. They are waved through traffic and crowds like royalty on the way to their destinations, and by 1 pm sharp, they’ve traversed the intricate byways of the city on jam-packed trains and rickety bicycles to deliver steaming-hot lunch.
The dabbawalas of India (‘dabba’ meaning container, ‘wala,’ person) reverse this entire process post-lunch, returning containers back to the homes they came from. Despite relying on a two-tier management system and nothing more high tech than Mumbai’s ancient train network, this cooperative surpasses many six-sigma Fortune 500 companies in timing, accuracy, and economy, with one mistake committed every 6 million transactions. They are the subject of Harvard academic papers; talked about by Richard Branson; visited by Amazon executives; and are the envy of FedEx - themselves masters of logistics.
Speaking of logistics, dabbawalas do not halt operations for anything - Prince Charles was famously refused a meeting because the dabbawalas didn’t want to be even a tad late to their destinations. They capitulated when he decided to meet them on their own turf, within a carefully elected, tiny window of time. The prince was so impressed, he invited a couple of dabbawalas to his wedding. There was one exception to their hard-and-fast rule; however: they attended social activist Anna Hazare’s national anti-corruption rally. It was the first time the dabbawalas striked in 120 years.
Over that century, they developed fail-proof strategies within every step of their system. For every twenty dabbawalas, for example, four are on standby in case of a hitch. There are built-in delivery buffers, as well, such as budgeting one extra hour for delivery. To further prevent disruption of their famed supply chain, a dabbawala will stop providing services to a family if they make them more than two minutes late in delivering their lunchbox to them. If the family delays the dabbawala more than one time, they are asked to upgrade to a premium service or even fired as a customer.
Organized by a simple union, dabbawalas make their own rules. They have no retirement age (many are over 50); divide their earnings by unit; and impose fines for alcohol, tobacco, being out of uniform and absenteeism. Most are devout Hindus of the Varkari sect, and believe the delivery of food to be an extremely pious act. In fact, many outsiders who have observed or studied this network consider the dabbawalas’ adherence to spiritual ideals as the main motivator behind their excellence.
Dabbawalas are some of the most trusted and respected people in India. Since there is virtually no turnover in the organization (indeed, thousands are eager to join and wait years for their turn), families often become close to the same dabbawala over years, decades even. Many office workers trust their faithful dabbawalas to even ferry home personal things other than food, like their pay (usually in cash).
How the Dabbawalas Inspired EAT Club’s Creation
In 2009, Rodrigo Santibanez and Kevin Yang, the founders of EAT Club, were studying at Stanford when they heard of the dabbawalas. Rodrigo was taken by the breadth of their work, all done without any technology: “For me - and I have an ops background - it was the operational complexity they handled without any technology, which was eye-opening and impressive. A year after Kevin and I studied them, we started exploring an equivalent service in America.”
“We came up with an idea and turned it into action. I went out and convinced 10 Bay Area restaurants to work with us, and then immediately sold our product to a few companies, as well. I figured out some very basic tools to organize, label, and deliver meals in an easy way, by setting up a delivery infrastructure. We started in Kevin’s dorm, then moved the business to my second bedroom, which I converted into an office. While I was out in the field, Kevin was at the office doing two things - writing code for our first website and handling customer service over the phone.”
“We’re now disrupting the tech landscape by becoming one of the very few companies that has been able to figure out how to do delivery at scale with profitable unit economics. The food tech scene is littered with delivery companies that have failed, or growing ones with poor unit economics - but even the latter still can’t deliver hundreds of meals to one single company. We do what no one else can, with all of our meals created (or curated), organized, labeled, and delivered on time. We are game changers in this space with regard to logistics, technology and operations, because we’re able to process and deliver large quantities of meals, on time, to big companies.”
“We’re different from the dabbawalas in that we have the technology to enable service to large groups of people at once - dabbawalas don’t serve companies, they serve individuals. Meanwhile, we have a point-to-point system where we’re more complex in how we serve individuals. Dabbawalas ferry homemade meals from an employee’s own kitchen to their place of work, whereas we give every employee the opportunity to choose from a variety of meals from hundreds of restaurants, every single day. Though we serve food differently than the dabbawalas, our inspiration to mimic key components of their business model - by simplifying our processes - means that we’re able to achieve 99% on-time delivery rates and 99.95% accuracy levels.”
“From a value and mission standpoint, I’m impressed by the dabbawalas’ work ethic and sheer reliability. There could be a monsoon happening, and those guys will still go out and deliver, in waist-high water. At EAT Club, we believe that no matter what’s going on, we’re going to provide a great service to all of our customers. We instill into our workforce the critical notion that our customers rely on us to fuel them during their busy work days, and we cannot let them down. First and foremost, Kevin and I wanted to foster that very strong sense of commitment.”
“In the future, I see EAT Club becoming the de facto food delivery service, whether for a small office of 10 employees or large campuses with thousands of employees. I also see the company spreading across the country and all major cities. Though we respect what B2C services offer, our ability to win has depended on our laser-focus on being the best food delivery for companies."
EAT Club is an enterprise-grade food and beverage solution for companies of all sizes. We go beyond delivering food - we transform your food program into an experience to bring employees together, boost company culture, and enable high-performing businesses. Learn more at eatclub.com.
- Harvard Business Review
University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School
- The Independent, How Dabbawalas Became the World’s Best Food Delivery System
- New York Times, Delivering Lunch in Mumbai, Across Generations
- BBC, The Unsurpassed 125 Year Old Network That Feeds Mumbai
- Economic Times, Food for Thought: What Makes Mumbai’s Dabbawalas Successful
- Food 52, How 200,000 Homemade Lunches Get Delivered in Mumbai Every Single Day
About the author
As a strategic communicator at EAT Club, Leena Chitnis assists with everything from internal communications to social media and marketing. She has previously consulted for Ericsson, NetApp, PayPal, Salesforce, FOX Broadcasting Company and other major studios in Los Angeles. In her spare time, she enjoys photography and working on various inventions.