Riyaaz Amlani | A boxful of goodness

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Happiness delivery: When the second wave hit livelihoods of Mumbai’s dabbawalas, Amlani’s restaurant chain began recruiting some of them to home deliver food from his restaurants

Dabbawalas with Social’s brand head Mayank Bhatt (left) at their Khar outlet, Mumbai; Photo by Milind Shelte

For 19 years, 38-year-old Ram Kadam has loaded lunchboxes on his handcart by 9 am sharp and transported them from Mumbai’s Girgaon to Lower Parel, partly by road, partly by train. Kadam and the nearly 5,000 of his ilk—the city’s dabbawalas—are synonymous with the city, with case studies of their near-zero error delivery methods taught in top management schools. The pandemic, however, rendered the dabbawalas, known for their intimate knowledge of Mumbai’s streets, jobless with the city going into lockdown and offices shutting down. Many returned to their villages, while some eked out a living doing odd jobs. Kadam, too, struggled to run his household and pay for the education of his four children. But, earlier this year, just as he was about to give up on the city, he was picked for a new job—this time with a high-end hospitality firm.

For 19 years, 38-year-old Ram Kadam has loaded lunchboxes on his handcart by 9 am sharp and transported them from Mumbai’s Girgaon to Lower Parel, partly by road, partly by train. Kadam and the nearly 5,000 of his ilk—the city’s dabbawalas—are synonymous with the city, with case studies of their near-zero error delivery methods taught in top management schools. The pandemic, however, rendered the dabbawalas, known for their intimate knowledge of Mumbai’s streets, jobless with the city going into lockdown and offices shutting down. Many returned to their villages, while some eked out a living doing odd jobs. Kadam, too, struggled to run his household and pay for the education of his four children. But, earlier this year, just as he was about to give up on the city, he was picked for a new job—this time with a high-end hospitality firm.

Kadam is now back in the food delivery business as part of a team of around 60 delivery boys—all dabbawalas—for Impresario Handmade Restaurants, which boasts of chains of cafes and restaurants, such as Social, Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Café, Mocha and Prithvi Café.

Wielding his smartphone, with a waterproof delivery pouch hung over his shoulders, he swishes through the suburbs on his bicycle, deftly beating the city’s traffic to meet stiff deadlines. For Riyaaz Amlani, Impresario’s CEO, while the move meant reaching out to dabbawalas when they needed it the most, it also made perfect business sense. “The dabbawalas are iconic and represent the true spirit of Mumbai,” he says. “Come rain or shine, they will bring you food on time.” The decision also helped him escape “the high-handed policies of the food aggregators”. Almost 21 of the firm’s outlets in Mumbai use dabbawalas for delivery.

Riyaaz Amlani, 46, CEO & MD, Impresario Handmade Restaurants, Mumbai

While no dabbawalas needed a lesson on delivering on time, they did need some training in dealing with customers and using the delivery software that tracks orders. Mayank Bhatt, business head, Social, who sealed the deal on employing dabbawalas after several rounds of talks with the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust, the apex body of the dabbawalas, says the dabbawalas learned quick and the feedback from customers has been excellent.

The restaurant chain hopes to employ 90-100 dabbawalas over the next few months. They are, at present, employed to cater to orders coming in directly to the restaurant, but these make up just 25 per cent of the total delivery orders (the rest come in from food aggregators). Amlani hopes to sensitise more customers about ordering food directly from restaurants, which will open up more avenues for the dabbawalas.

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