Sunday, March 19, 2006

dabbawallahs in america

if you read the dining section of the new york times, you probably have already come across this article on the rising popularity of dabbahwallas in the big american metros. my friend, shivani, who lives in manhattan is the authour of the article.

i had a long chat with shivani on the phone yesterday and learnt a few things about reactions to this article which i wanted to share with you. well firstly, the article was the number one most emailed artile from last week. congrats, shivani - that's so fabulous! what this shows is that interest in india and things indian have really reached a critical mass in america. i can't imagine such an article having generated so much interest even five years ago. secondly, shivani told me that anaadaata's website had such a huge surge in hits after the publication of the article that they were really worried of the site crashing! apparently, more than 90% of the queries to their phone line were from non-indians. i was quite surprised by that. they even had a call from china asking if the food could be delivered there!! and thirdly, shivani even got a call from a literary agent wanting to take her to lunch to brainstorm about book ideas. i'm just so excited for my friend!

my only regret is that i don't live in california anymore. san franciso is covered in annadaata's lunch route 1 which means i could have had piping hot, home cooked food at work. i'm so jealous of all my friends in the bay area. got to look into such options in london.


Blogger gs said...

lulu,do you know that the dabbawallas of mumbai have soul mates in prince charles and camilla parker bowles.prince charles met with them when he came to mumbai last.since then the friendship with the two top persons of the dabbawalla's association has flourished.they even attended pc's wedding.and i remember having read somewhere that tiffinboxes indian style have been recently marketed in london.i won't be surprised if there is already a dabba service of sorts being planned.

1:07 pm  
Blogger Amy Sherman said...

Great article thanks for bringing it to my attention.

5:23 pm  
Blogger Kay said...

Lulu, I've been to the tiffinbites in Birmingham and they have a whole history of these dabbahwallahs on their walls. Was a very interesting read.

I remember, even in Silicon valley, some Indian group organised (2-yrs ago) this kinda dabba service. You pay $5 for a lunch and they deliver at your office doorstep. HEard it was very good. I have no idea if it's still there..

7:05 pm  
Anonymous Arti said...

It's right here in London as well, Lulu.


12:13 pm  
Anonymous payal said...

lulu, thanks for sharing this info. i've lived in SF and and now Marin for the past 6 years and had NO idea about this service. i know that it is wide-spread in NJ, but so nice to know that we have something similar here as well. we're moving down to the peninsula realtively soon so it will be easier to access this service i imagine. thanks again. love this blog!

6:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah Lulu, even i've heard of Tiffin Bites:

6:29 pm  
Blogger Lotus Reads said...

I'm jealous! :) Wish they would start a similar service here in Toronto, but perhaps someone already does. I will need to make inquiries. Great blog, I'm enjoying it!

8:06 pm  
Blogger Lulu said...

thanks for the heads-up on tiffinbites! will have to check them out for lunch at work since my office is in the EC zone.

4:15 pm  
Anonymous Diane said...

I read about this, but unfortunately it's just in the silicon valley area. I'm waiting/hoping for the east bay to be added in, as I live in Berkeley (hint, hint to ambitious readers???).

I'm a non-Indian who cooks Indian food daily and would definitely take advantage of this if it was more widely available. Mmmmmmmm...

2:24 pm  
Anonymous radhika aggarwal said...

hi lulu
you had anadata food at my place. for my housewarming puja i had got the food catered from anadata. when re you oming back to the bay area. miss you
radhika a

5:29 pm  
Blogger Lulu said...

hi rads,
great to hear from you! i remember the food at your puja. it was delicious - i thought you had prepared it all yourself. by the way, heard through the grapevine that you had an awesome party on saturday. i miss your annual events!
hope to see you in london soon.

8:18 pm  
Anonymous Shalini Bhalla said...

In response to the NY Times article on Annadaata :

I steal by
taking copyright theft to the people

It is 4:20 am on Sunday morning in San Francisco. The street outside is coming alive with cleaners and volunteers as the Mission district slowly wakes to its annual Carnival. Tired and yet unable to sleep, I’m sitting here typing away - attempting to compose feverish thoughts and hopefully lucid anger onto paper. As you can probably tell, I am not a writer. I am however enraged. I feel violated. “Pick your battles”, my mom used to say. You cannot change everything. Normally, I wouldn’t be complaining in an open forum. However, this is an injustice I choose to speak about – aloud.

Who am I?

I am Shalini Bhalla. I am a first generation immigrant from India, living in San Francisco for the last 5 years. Like many young Indian women of my generation, I arrived here, newly married to a software engineer, looking to make a living in the Silicon Valley. Except - I was an architect. Worse still, our arrival coincided with the dotcom bust. No jobs for architectural designers here. I had a completely useless set of professional qualifications for the time. Then I lost my mother to ovarian cancer and my brother was undergoing chemotherapy in Bombay for Hodgkin’s disease. With all this going on, life as I had known it, had changed completely.

I set about busying myself with setting up home. Having suddenly fallen into a high-risk category for cancer, I started looking for answers. Something I could have done that might have saved my mom and maybe could help my brother now. I developed a special interest in clean, organic produce. Having grown up with great cooks at home, my interest soon spread from fabulous tasting ingredients to the farmers who grew them. Impact of the food we eat - on the environment and us, industries that made it possible to farm “clean and green” and interacting with farmers who provide that nourishing produce – all this soon had my husband and me hooked into the need for green, local and sustainable, Indian food. Most of all, I wanted to spread awareness in the local Indian community in the bay area. Yes - organic and sustainable does cost more. But it’s not just a fad and farmers are not out to fleece you. Quite the opposite. It is about clean, health-giving food. It is about making educated choices - not the cheapest ones.

Ironically, it was coming to the U.S. that opened my eyes to the very international nature of “traditional Indian” cuisine. From this distance it was almost easier to see the influences of the British, Portuguese, French, the Middle East, China, etc on what we perceive as “traditional Indian” food today. It was amazing to see and decipher connections between architecture, language, history, world politics, trade and food. Did you know for example that Indian food wasn’t always spicy? In fact the very early British traders did not have much trouble with the local food at all. The Spanish introduced red chillies later to India.

After architecture, I had found something I was passionate about again. The hope that I could reinvent myself grew.

That’s what I did. I started Spice Vice.
But Immigration requirements meant I would have to wait for a green card to start a business. So I put my creative energies into researching, cooking and building up a huge database of Indian food – something old and something new. It has taken long hours, hard work and it hasn’t been easy.

So now I’ve reinvented myself, who am I?

Ina sense, I am my passion for food – this passion has given me purpose and therefore sanity for 5 years trapped as a “home maker”.
I am also “a database” - one gigantic file on my computer which has recipes and pictures of all the food I make and create.
This is all I have done, and all I have to show for 5 years of working at home.

How much is this database (or part of) worth?

While doing research for my business plan recently, I came across an article in the New York Times. Titled “Knock, knock. Its Indian Comfort Food” by Shivani Vora, March 15, 2006. The article talked about an Indian food business called “Annadaata”, located in the Bay Area. They sell packed lunch and dinner boxes to busy, working professionals, primarily of Indian origin. Business has boomed recently since they were featured in The New York Times. The main page of the website announces this proudly and also provides a link to the article.

I then moved onto the next page “about us”.

They have a flash animation movie of different food shots on the left. The same 55 images play repeatedly on 3 other webpages. Now browse through my website, Spice Vice. I have a bunch of pictures on the site.

Do you see a similarity? Annadaata has been using 50 images from my site since 2004 (We looked up their archives). They're selling food and the food they picture isn’t even theirs - its mine.
I took down a large part of my website in 2004 as my images were turning up on lots of different sites. I retained 50 images on spicevice and added a copyright statement to each image. I hoped putting a copyright notice on the image itself would make people pause and think. Well, of course not. has all 50 images from my site; they’ve cropped off the copyright text on each one of them.

I called them up and made a simple request that they take down the images. That’s it. I'm not looking for compensation, not even an apology for stealing my work for 2 whole years - nothing. Mr. Kishan Sreedhar who answered the phone, besides being rude, refused to part with contact information for Kavita Srivathsan – a lady named as the owner of the company in the NY Times article. Insisting that I speak only to him, he got progressively angry and belligerent, claiming I was wasting his time and hence money, and that I couldn’t prove the pictures were mine. But I can. I have high-resolution images of each one. I also have the email I sent to Annadaata after this phone call, citing the conversation between Mr. Kishan Sreedhar and me, repeating that they simply take down my images.

Not too much to ask I think. But most importantly, the evidence is right there on the websites to see. Each of my website pictures has a copyright line written onto it, along with my website address. Annadaata has cropped the copyright statement from each image and then looped it into the flash movie on their site.
One email and one voice mail later, I am still waiting for a response. The pictures are still up on their website and they have stopped taking my phone calls. I am not averse to the occasional blogger or food enthusiast linking to my images. I would appreciate it if they took my permission and put in a link to my website. Just drop me a line. That’s all it takes. I’m not a bad person really, I believe in sharing. This however is a big, profit making business.

A couple of people I’ve spoken to are of the opinion that these kinds of things are bound to happen, people will copy - I should be happy that ultimately I have the creativity and that’s what sets me apart. They cannot take that away from me. This attitude seems so completely fatalistic to me. Its like saying that unless the other person attacks and renders you mentally retarded or takes away a part of your brain so you cannot be creative anymore, anything they copy is fine.

At least you have your creativity.

So does it mean that I create more information, put it out there and just wait for someone to rip it off again? Then what? Create more data....? What happens when a customer looks up Indian food on Google and there are four websites with similar graphics, and the same food shots. Who's copying whom? As a customer I would assume they're all the same rehash of a cheap curry joint - no originality, even though one of them may have spent months generating those pictures from scratch. This can do irreparable damage to an honest company’s reputation.

My company stands for a responsible, green, local, organic and sustainable business. Today I am forced to share my graphic data, that I created, for my website, with a company selling $5 lunch dabbas (boxes), with promotional stunts like “teen patti” (Indian version of poker) on their website and steals from me.

It is not that Annadaata cannot afford to pay a professional to takes the pictures, or maybe even take the trouble and click some pictures on their own. The reason why businesses like Annadaata steal, is because its simple and because they can – they steal by choice. They choose to steal, making a conscious decision to do so, rather than generating the graphics or paying someone to do it for them. They’ll do anything to save or make a buck. And unless you are willing to pay big legal fees, it seems there are no consequences.

What if we were to take a different approach? Instead of taking the legal course, we take it to the public. Post the evidence – the copied image and the original.

I Steal by - an online forum against such offenders, a place where offending businesses can be seen and recognized for what they are. Where common people can comment on unjust practices by businesses.

If money is all such businesses care about, the only thing that will deter them from such blatant stealing, is if it starts affecting their bottom line. One great review in the NY times has boosted sales tremendously for Annadaata. What happens if they get four bad reviews pointing out foul business practices? If customers start choosing not to support such businesses, they will not steal – because they dare not.
If a business steals from me, I want the right to be able to call a thief, a thief…. as loud and clear as I can. I have nothing to hide or to be afraid of. I have every photograph I’ve clicked in the last 5 years. I have gigabytes of pictures. I have proof.

All this frustration and injustice…. and all I asked is for them to take down my pictures from their website. That’s it.
I’ve said my piece.

Note : “I steal by” is a fictional website. If anyone knows of an online forum similar to the one described, please send me more information. I would like to post on that forum.
Below are a series of screen shots of the original webpages and the copies on
(The comments section does not let me include picstures. Email me and I'll be happy to mail them to you. Or simply follow the links included in the article above).

Thank you.
Shalini Bhalla

8:54 pm  
Anonymous Shalini Bhalla said...

Here is a link to the article above. I've uploaded it to my website so its easier to read. It also has screen shots of the 2 websites. The originals on Spice Vice and the copies on Annadaata.


12:12 am  
Anonymous Shalini Bhalla said...

Hi there

My name is Shalini Bhalla. I'm including a link below to an article in response to the New York Times article about the Bay Area food business called "Annadaata". They have been stealing 50 copyrighted images from my website ( since 2004.

The article also includes screen shots from both websites - the originals on Spice Vice and the copies on Annadaata.

I request you to take 5 minutes and read it. Pass it on to anyone who you think may be able to help or maybe interested in the article.

Thank you

PS: I posted the link before but it seems to be missing from my earlier post....?

7:15 pm  
Blogger Lulu said...

hi shalini
it looks like annadaata may have finally woken up and smelt the coffee as their website is down and they claim they are redoing it.
i'm truly sorry to hear how your images were stolen and how the company reacted to your phone call. i totally understand how you are feeling. i will speak to my friend shivani who wrote the article and see if the NYT or maybe even Small Business magazine can do a nasty article on them highlighting what a dangerous business strategy (for both ethical and business reasons) it can to ignore intellectual property rights.

11:03 pm  
Anonymous Shalini Bhalla said...


Thanks so much.I appreciate all the help I can get.


1:11 am  
Anonymous Kavita Srivathsan said...

Hi Lulu:

I am truly shocked by the fact that you bought into the pathetic attempt that Shalini Bhalla has made in trying to ride on Annadaata's popularity. I just chanced upon on all these websites with all these blogs that she has written to - in a desperate attempt to get her name out there.

What Shalini claims is entirely false. As you have pointed out in your blog much earlier, Annadaata had to revamp and increase bandwidth on the website due to the fact that we had such an overwhelming response to the NYT article.

I am actually going to write to Shivani Vora as well regarding this issue - I just got to know of it now. We have a standard page that we put up on our website whenever we close for the holidays (which is when Shalini chose to write to you) - disabling the other links to the website due to the fact that customers keep writing in and no responses go to them owing to the fact that we are on vacation.

About smelling the coffee - it is time that the world woke up and smelt the rot on Ms.Bhalla's claims. I am outraged by her false claims - she does not even have a current copyright on her pictures. It is not possible by the way to crop out copyrights from pictures let alone just dump and use them.

Please do not allow people like Shalini to "use" or should I say "abuse" such useful portals such as yours and discredit an honest and young organization such as Annadaata's. We dared to do what we believed in when people like Ms.Shalini Bhalla pondered on whether this idea would work. It is shameful and truly dissuading when all that hard work and effort is discredited by the lies of a pitiful, pathetic apology of an enterpreneur who goes to the extent of blasphemizing our founder directors. Shame on Ms.Bhalla and I hope you would make an attempt to correct this. We are closed for the July 4th holidays - our website again has the same page up. Are we worried about Ms.Bhalla again now? It is over a month now! For crying out loud, Shalini Bhalla - learn to work on earning your popularity not riding on someone else's success!

Thank you Lulu. I am so glad that I found this blog and got an opportunity to see what is "out there". If anyone deserves an apology it is us and we will rightfully sue this Ms.Bhalla if need be- to reiterate our stance!

Kavita Srivathsan
CEO-Annadaata's Inc.

2:54 am  
Anonymous Shalini Bhalla said...

Hi Kavita

Its good to hear from you!! You are welcome to get in touch with me at Mr. Kishan Shreedhar also has my email addr and phone number.

1) I would like to say that I am not trying to ride on your success. I am not even a business. I do not have a dabba service.

2) The images say “Copyright 2002-2004″. This simply means that the images were created in 2002 and edited during the period of 2002-2004. These images were taken by me and my Copyright on them exists today. According to the US copyright office, “A work that is created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death”.
My images are also registered with the copyright office.

3) My article has screen shots from both websites showing clearly that the copyright statement was cropped and then used on your site.

4) I did get in touch with Mr. Kishan Shreedhar, who said he was a co-owner - first by phone and then by email. I simply requested that my images be taken down.


8:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shalini Bhalla,

Dont bother with these typical desis. They dont understand the idea of ethics. They might look all modern and progressive but will brush any ethics under the carpet (like what happens in the jungle raj in India) where their personal profit or their 'friends' profits are concerned. Isnt it like a typical unethical desi to state that "the pathetic attempt that Shalini Bhalla has made in trying to ride on Annadaata's popularity. "
while completely missing the point of ethics. What a typical typical cheap and shameless attitude. Boycott Shame on them.

p.s. no, I am not Shalini Bhalla.

2:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope some starts the service in Montreal, Canada


4:33 pm  
Anonymous Squamble said...

Yes they are the one to be saluted.
Nice logistic and Supply chain managemnet.
From Mumbai to London at Prince Charls wedding. They have done it.
Secrets of Dabbawallahs

5:07 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home