In Mumbai, India, couriers called dabbawallas are the FedEx of food delivery. But instead of jets, they deliver by train, bicycle, and foot. And forget computerized routing and tracking: They use only a simple system of color codes and numbers to shuttle an estimated 175,000 or so lunches in stackable containers called dabbas:
The service is at once simple and complex. A network of wallas picks up the boxes from customers’ homes or from people who cook lunches to order, then delivers the meals to a local railway station. The boxes are hand-sorted for delivery to different stations in central Mumbai, and then re-sorted and carried to their destinations. After lunch, the service reverses, and the empty boxes are delivered back home.
It's not an altogether new story (Forbes mentioned it as far back as '98) but the fact that some Mumbai dabbawallas are starting to sign up customers via the web gives the story new legs for the New York Times.
The dabbawalla system was set up more than 100 years ago as a way to provide familiar food to Indians from different regions who had streamed in to what was then known as Bombay. (Their other choice being the British food served by the companies they worked for.)
In the U.S., the system has even been imported to San Francisco; Redmond, Washington; and New York, though it seems to exist more in spirit than in substance, with U.S.-based delivery services providing lunches to only a relative handful of customers.
Dabbas themselves are pretty neat, and Pearl River sells all sorts. The stainless-steel versions are plain and functional, but I particularly like the colorful melamine versions shown below, which are also available here [via The Tiffin Tin].