The dabbawalla has moved to the Bay Area

From home operation four years ago, Annadaata big business today: order over Internet

It’s a few minutes after 1 pm 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: fish fry, rajma masala, yogurt, rotis and rice. “See you Monday,” Desai says as a goodbye.
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, 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,, 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 every day.”

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.