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Amazing India: The Origin of Meals on Wheels

November 27, 2020

It is widely accepted that India is one of the central cradles of civilization. As there has been an explosion worldwide of delivered meals during the pandemic, it would seem appropriate to recognize its origin in India a mere 130 years ago. As I have been involved in India some thirty years, I first became aware of dabbawalas by seeing images such as that below. The dabbawalas form a lunchbox delivery system from homes and restaurants to offices and shops in Mumbai by delivering to their clients. The lunch boxes are picked up in the late morning in railway stations and returned empty in the afternoon. You will note in the cart below, an aluminum multi-tiered tiffin as the dabbawalas were originally called tiffin wallahs.  
In the late 1800’s, hordes of migrants moved to Bombay (Mumbai) from different parts of India. As fast-food establishments and canteens were non-existent, many office workers had to go hungry mid-day. In 1890,Mahadeo Havaji Bachche started a lunch delivery service which ultimately became a charitable trust and mushroomed in size delivering hundreds of thousands of lunch boxes per day. Most of the tiffin wallahs are related to each other from the same village and cannot read or write. Therefore, all of their deliveries are coded with a series of symbols, colors, and numbers to determine the pick-up and delivery locations. As their error rate is less than one in sixteen million per tiffin carrier, the system performance is incredibly accurate. By the way, the actual Mumbai tiffin food shown below is quite tasty and appealing. I recently had the chana masala dish on the right from a prominent Texas supermarket as take-away to illustrate a real-life evolution of dining in our world. “You can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy.”  
To fast forward to modern pandemic times, Nikkei Asia recently published an article entitled Delivery Hero Bets on Asia as COVID Fuels Food-Delivery Fight. Many international food delivery operators are focusing on Asia as their future growth market. That should come as no shock as we know India was a pioneer. Moreover, in my travels in Asia there has always been a vibrant food delivery market ranging from sushi in Japan to assortments of tiffin curries in Singapore. German food delivery specialist, Delivery Hero, is mounting a major campaign into Asia through its Asia-focused unit, Foodpanda. Their delivery staff shown below in Japan look a bit more professional than the dabbawallas though it will be very difficult to surpass their delivery success ratio.  
The staggering six months revenues for the world’s major food delivery operators is shown below.  
We recently used GrubHub to pick up and deliver barbecue in Atlanta to family members who were in recovery from Covid-19 and it worked perfectly. Delivery Hero’s growth in revenue by region shown below highlights the potential in Asia.  
The food delivery business is open to competition with local operators teaming up with restaurants and retailers to quickly adapt to particular markets. Moreover, the local operators are often more adept at modifying their delivery platforms to provide a sustainable partnership path with their food providers and customers. For example, Indonesia’s Gojek, shown below, uses its network of ride-hailing drivers to bring food to customers.  
Therefore, as the airline industry has withered during the pandemic, other entrepreneurs have come forward to create new services to meet customer needs in a very difficult economy. As always, service and reliability are the key to success. Accordingly, the dabbawallas led the way 130 years ago and established the gold standard of performance.  

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