It's tiffin time | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 13, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 13, 2008

Livelihood

It's tiffin time


A woman pushes a rickshaw van as a boy pulls it to carry home prepared lunches. Across Dhaka thousands of men and women get up in the early morning hours to prepare lunches for the city's growing band of hungry office workers.Photo: Shafiq Alam

Minara Begum, a 37 year old widow starts her day in a tiny kitchen at 4 in the morning. She has to prepare lunch for 45 people, five days a week and has been working hard to manage everything including shopping and cooking all by herself.
On the menu today is ruhie fish curry, mixed vegetable, dal, rice and a slice of lemon. Once ready, Minara will pack the food into aluminum and plastic tiffin carriers and load it on to rickshaws to be dispatched to her customers at office desks throughout Motijheel, Paltan and Segunbagicha, Dhaka's commercial centre.
Minara is not alone. Across the city thousands of men and women get up in the early hours of the morning to prepare lunches for the city's growing band of hungry office workers. And while it may seem like the simplest of tasks, the ability to put tens of thousands of meals on the desks of individual customers every work day is a logistical achievement that has even gained the attention of business scholars in the west.
Minara started her business five years ago when her husband died, leaving her almost penniless with three daughters and her mother in law to support. “When he died I thought I would go under,” she said.
After getting a job in her cousin's small restaurant as a cook she began to see the potential of providing a lunch service and eventually set off on her own.
Her first clients were former customers of the restaurant but the number soon grew as word got around. “Now I am serving people working in the Bangladesh Bank, Janata Bank and some private offices in Motijheel,” she said.
She charges Tk 50 per lunch with a different meal five days a week, alternating between chicken, beef, eggs and fish. It's a competitive price and one of the reasons that the number of customers for the tiffin trade is growing.
“The price is very reasonable and as the food is homemade, it is fresh,” said Mamun Elahi, an assistant director at Bangladesh Bank in Motijheel who has been one of Minara's clients for more than two years.
The alternative is to visit a restaurant, but with prices rising many office workers are reluctant to spend so much everyday on eating out. Moreover there remain concerns about food hygiene in the less personal environment of a large restaurant.
Another reason Elahi has stuck with Minara is the punctual arrival of his daily meal. Indeed this is one of the remarkable logistical achievements of the tiffin service. In the jam packed, potholed and sometimes-flooded streets of the capital, the fleet of rickshaws is able to deliver fresh meals to an individual on time.
And customers are demanding. The tiffin must arrive before 1 pm in time for the official lunch break between 1.30 and 2.30. Failure means the customer will simply find another supplier. Not only that, once the lunch break has been completed, the carriers must return, collect the tiffin boxes and take them back for cleaning.
It is this feat that attracted scholarly research on the tiffin trade in Mumbai, where the carriers are called Dubba-wallas. In Dhaka the trade is more concentrated to the commercial center, but the same logistical challenges exist.
Getting paid also takes some doing. The tiffin sellers do not have contracts with institutions or workplaces but with individual customers. In the larger offices, several tiffin sellers will be delivering. Each customer has their own account and the bills are settled at the end of the month.
Jahangir Alam, another lunch provider in Motijheel, serves 70 customers per day and started the business in 2002.
“The number of offices and employees were limited at that time, but now there are several hundreds of offices and some thousands of employees, which is helping the business grow very fast in the area,” he said
Like Minara, Jahangir also prepares lunches at his home, with his wife as head cook and two of his sons and a nephew as helping hands.
“I have been serving lunch for the last six years and never been blamed for rotten or stale food served in offices,” Jahangir said proudly.
Jahangir said one of the attractions of the business was that it does not need huge investments. However traders still face many problems.
Jummon Ali, another lunch provider in Ram Krishna Mission Road, said many times he provided lunch to private offices only to find them close down before he was paid.
“At a time of skyrocketing prices of essentials, customers are unwilling to pay more and most importantly they don't pay in advance, so we have to struggle to manage things on a very tight budget,” he said.
“There is no association to protect our rights,” he added.
Back in Minara's kitchen the thick aromas of cumin, turmeric and lemon are sometimes over powering, but Minara does not seem to mind. Putting lunch on the desks of the office workers in Motijheel is putting the food on the table for her family.
Sayeda@thedailystar.net

Stay updated on the go with The Daily Star News App. Click here to download it for your device.

fifa world cup

Grameenphone and Robi:
Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 2222

Banglalink:
Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 2225

Leave your comments

Top News

Top News

Top