"Why haven't you written about the dabbawalas?", someone asked me recently. "They're such a Mumbai icon!"
Well, if you really want to know, I haven't written about the dabbawalas simply because they've become such a well-worn cliche. I am so irritated by condescending articles that gush "Oh, they're uneducated but they're still a six sigma operation!!".
As if only people with university degrees can run anything of high quality!
I'm quite certain the istriwala who has been coming to our house every week for the last 20 years runs a six sigma operation. He rarely, very rarely, makes mistakes. The guy who delivers our groceries (he comes home every alternate day and takes orders) rarely makes mistakes either. The newspaper delivery is never wrong, nor the milk delivery. The flower-woman delivers the right fresh flowers for daily prayer (different types of flowers for different houses, different lengths, and special flowers for special days). There's a fruit seller who brings bananas to my parents home every other day, and a vegetable seller who brings palak.
But it's not just artisans and tradesmen - you can see custom-services even in the daily bazaars. Come pickling season, shopkeepers set up custom mango slicing operations. "Don't cut it so fine, bhaiyya", you can say to them. "I'd like it more chunky." Buying a pineapple? They'll slice it into nice thin circles so you don't have to bother. How about a pomegranate? Ah, no problem, they'll peel it for you and give you bright red kernels in small pouches. Fresh corn? They'll cut the kernels from the cob and custom-pack it for you. If you're a regular customer, they'll remember what you like and how you like it.
As you can see, we are quite obviously, a people who understand personalised and high quality service extremely well. In fact, I think Indian consumers are probably the most demanding in the world. We want - no, we insist - on superior service, tailored to our needs, at little or no cost. This of course, is a daunting prospect for anyone supplying anything to the Indian market. But sellers who can understand this mindset and who can tailor their products and services to it, are the ones who will succeed and thrive.
The dabbawallas have, in fact, done exactly that. They provide a service that is designed around their customer's needs, at a price that makes sense. This doesn't make the dabbawalas any less iconic or interesting - but it does set them into a larger context, the context of a city that offers other similar services at really low costs.
Here are the simple economics of the dabbawala story:
Number of dabbawalas: 5,000
Number of dabbas they deliver every day: 200,000
Charges per month: Rs 250-300 per dabba
What you get for 10 rupees a day: Two-way delivery of food (in the morning, hot food is transported from home to office, and in the afternoon the empty dabba is brought back)
Does it make sense?: Yes it does. A thali meal at a restaurant costs at least Rs 35; and the nicer ones cost Rs 100 - Rs 200. So even with the dabbawala's delivery charges, you end up spending much, much less every month if you bring food from home. And you don't get upset tummies. And all your little food taboos are intact - you can eat garlic-free meals, if your religion forbids garlic. Or sugar-free meals, if you're diabetic. Unlike a courier service, you get the same dabbawala every day, a face-to-face personalised service integrated into your daily routine. Before the era of cell phones, dabbawalas passed on messages as well ("Come home early, your aunt from Valsad is here!"). Even today, because it is a familiar trusted daily service, the dabbawala will sometimes deliver cell phones or pens or things that someone has forgotten at home.
And thus the dabbawala's proposition works; it is priced right for the market, but more importantly, it satisfies the customer's requirement for a customised, personalised meal that meets personal, medical, religious and social requirements. It therefore delivers exactly the kind of value that Indian customers want and appreciate. If there is a magic formula for succeeding in the Indian market, surely this is it.