Saturday, March 18, 2006

DABBA WALA IN CALIFORNIA NOW

5. The Famed Mumbai Lunch Delivery System Arrives in America

travel2.nytimes.com

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, March 15, 2006: It's a few minutes after 1 p.m. on a Friday, and Raj Desai is ready for lunch and waiting for a knock on his door. A man he knows as Kishan soon enters his office with a clear plastic container that holds his lunch: rice and curries. As executive director of a large nonprofit organization in Santa Clara, Mr. Desai barely has time to leave his office, but eating a good lunch is a high priority for him. Food from any old place--a cafeteria, a restaurant or takeout, Indian or otherwise--will not do. So he relies on a company called Annadaata, which makes lunch and dinner boxes for clients in the San Francisco Bay Area. This lunchtime scene is being played out each weekday in the U.S. in metropolitan areas with large South Asian populations. They depend on delivery workers to bring them the home-cooked foods of their upbringing, often prepared by cooks working from home. Having such a lunch is a way of life in Mumbai, India, where dabbawallas or tiffin-wallas (men who carry tiffins, the containers that hold the food) use an elaborate, 120-year-old system to transport lunches to workers at mills, shops and offices. In Mumbai the tiffin, or lunch, is prepared by the wife, mother or servant of the intended. In the U.S., because of little time (and lack of a domestic staff), many of these lunches are prepared by outsiders, but the underlying principle is the same.

Annadaata, which began as a homespun operation in 2002, has morphed into a business with several delivery people distributing meals each weekday across San Francisco. Kavita Srivathsan, 29, the chief executive of Annadaata, got her start by cooking meals for her new husband and his friends. Mrs. Srivathsan's business grew so fast that a few mont hs after she began she decided she could not longer run it from her home. "It began as me cooking out of my kitchen, but since there was such a demand for it, I had to make it a legitimate business with a tax ID number and a rented kitchen," she said. Because she wanted to reach a wider market and knew that Indians generally favored cuisine from their region, she hired cooks from various areas in India, including Gujarat, south India and Punjab. Today, customers can click on her Web site, here, to view a menu for the coming week. After choosing from among a vegetarian (US$7, Fridays was Palak Pappu, Gutti Vankai (eggplant) Koora, Rice, Rotis and Buttermilk), a nonvegetarian ($8) or a south Indian meal ($8), they place orders over the Internet and pay with credit cards. There is a service charge of just $1/meal for delivery, and serve the west side of San Francisco Bay area, from San Jose to San Francisco. "Even though we are a lot bigger now, the food is cooked in small batches, so it is still homemade food," Mrs. Srivathsan said. In Redmond, Washington, dozens of homemakers prepare lunches for the thousands of South Asians working on Microsoft's corporate campus. More than 30,000 employees work there, a significant number of them South Asian, and there are several electronic message boards on which homemakers advertise. They charge $4 to $7 for the box lunches.

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