As executive director of a large nonprofit
organization in Santa Clara, 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 Bay Area.
This lunchtime scene is being played out each
weekday in the US 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, where
dabbawallas or tiffin-wallas 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 US, because of
little time (and a lack of a domestic staff), many of these lunches
are prepared by outsiders, but the underlying principle is the same.
With the spread of these services, Punjabis can have their saag paneer
and meat curries; Gujaratis can have their dal, bhat, saag and rotis;
and south Indians their rasam.
And as demand for home-cooked food on the job
has increased, so has the number of outlets providing tiffins.
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.
“I didn’t know how to cook, and the first two
months after getting married my husband and I went out to eat all the
time,” she said from her home in San Jose. “Two months later our
credit card bills were out of control and we were both gaining weight.
At the end, I just wanted the Indian food I had grown up with.”
She did not have a job at the time, so she
spent her time learning how to cook Indian foods. Using recipes from
her mother in south India, she experimented in the kitchen for a few
hours each day. On a whim, she advertised $5 box meals on
justindia.com, a website based in the San Francisco area that no
longer exists. “That was the only time I ever did any advertising,”
she said. “The very next day I got a few phone calls from people
ordering the boxes, and from then on the word spread like wildfire.”
Srivathsan’s business grew so fast that a few
months later she decided she could no 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 favoured cuisine from
their region, she hired cooks from various parts of India. Today,
customers can click on her website, annadaata.com, to view a menu for
the coming week. After choosing from among a vegetarian ($7), a
nonvegetarian ($8) or a south Indian meal ($8), they place orders over
the Internet and pay with credit cards.
“Even though we are a lot bigger now, the
food is cooked in small batches, so it is still homemade,” Mrs
Srivathsan said. “This is the food my husband, my daughter and I eat
Annadaata has delivered box lunches to
Desai’s office almost every weekday at 1 pm for the past two years.
“This is not like restaurant food at all,” he said. “There is minimal
oil, and the different kinds of specialty food you get with Annadaata
you would never ever find in a restaurant.”
In Redmond, Wash., 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—they are almost always
women—advertise. They charge $4 to $7 for the box lunches, and often
have their husbands deliver them.
Kiran Sharma, 46, cooked for Microsoft
employees before the demand became too great. “When I came here from
India in 2001 I wanted to find a way to make extra money, and I knew I
was a good cook,” she said. “My husband knew someone who worked at
Microsoft who put up a posting about my food, and right away I had
over 20 customers each day.” Mrs Sharma cooked only vegetarian food,
and provided one curried vegetable, one dry vegetable, a dal, three
rotis, rice and salad in white boxes purchased in bulk from Costco.
She charged $7.50 a box and made a $4 profit on each one. “I was
making $400 a week, but I had to quit because my children needed my
attention,” she said.