Indian food boxes stacking up

A traditional Indian method of storing and serving food is finding new currency as an eco-friendly alternative in Vancouver.

By Vancouver Courier, originally published March 25, 2009

A traditional Indian method of storing and serving food is finding new currency as an eco-friendly alternative in Vancouver.

Chindi Varadarajulu has sold 300 tiffin boxes from her restaurant, Chutney Villa, in the last few months.

“What really draws people that don’t know about it, other than the cool factor, is the fact that it’s so eco-friendly and convenient,” she said.

Tiffins are stackable, cylindrical metal containers with lids and a handle, used to transport meals in India. They’re also called dabbas.

Shaffeen Jamal, who owns Curry 2 U in the Granville Island Public Market, started selling tiffins six years ago at the behest of his teenage daughter, Saniya, who worked for him over the summer. She hated the restaurant’s use of Styrofoam containers and urged her father to try something new.

After a few false starts, Jamal went old school, first sourcing tiffins locally. As more customers bought them, he began importing them from India.

His sales have soared.

Jamal reckons he’s sold 50,000 tiffins over the last half dozen years, charging $12 for a two-level tiffin complete with a meal, and $5.99 each time to refill it with rice and curry.

But his daughter remained unsatisfied.

“Last year, in the middle of summer, she was still bitching at the fact that we’re still using too many Styrofoam plates,” Jamal said.

He removed a steaming oven from the business’s 350-square-foot space and replaced it with a $4,500 eco-friendly industrial dishwasher that uses less water and soap, and gave diners the option of paying a $1 deposit to eat off thalis, which are traditional metal platters with small bowls and trays that hold individual dishes.

Seventy per cent of his customers bring a tiffin they’ve cleaned to be refilled or opt to pay a deposit to eat off a thali, and the other 30 per cent choose plastic or Styrofoam. For $2, customers can take away a reusable plastic plate with a lid and receive 10 per cent off their meal every time they get it refilled.

Jamal has tried but rejected biodegradable containers.

“Our foods tend to be so hot that because these things are made from sugar cane fibre, the fibres start to break down very quickly, so the guy’s on his way home, but his curry’s already made it out of the container,” he said.

Jamal, whose business is a charter members of Vancouver’s Green Table Network of restaurants that operate in an environmentally responsible manner, had hoped thalis would catch on in the Granville Island food court.

“They haven’t,” he said. “However, a lot of them do refill my tiffins.”

Jamal figures he loses two or three thalis a day. Some people throw them away.

But Jamal’s not only saving waste from the landfill, he’s also saving money.

Before he would use an estimated 100,000 Styrofoam plates, which cost 21 cents apiece, each year. Thalis cost five times that, but he figures he uses them up to 300 times. Even with the money spent on a dishwasher and thalis, he’s ahead of the game.

In September, Varadarajulu started corporate catering with tiffins from her South Indian restaurant near Main and Broadway.

“I know how a lot of offices do a lot of lunches in the office for meetings and stuff and how much garbage they have left over in the end,” she said.

Chutney Villa has fed groups of 13 to 75 as far away as B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby. Most clients return the dirty tiffins to her at the end of a day, but she picks them up if need be.

Varadarajulu sells three-level tiffins at Chutney Villa for $25. She said they won’t spill soup, the lids double as plates and a little indent can hold salad dressing apart from the rest.

“A lady actually bought it for her dog,” Varadarajulu said. “She’s like OK, food in the bottom, treats in the middle and water on the top.”