On a foggy, cold, night of October 2019, Rayees Ahmad pulled himself out of his blanket when a friend rang him, asking politely if he could arrange homemade food at his office a few meters away in Raj Bagh, Srinagar. He rushed to the kitchen, packed food for his friend and headed out.

It was the third month of the government imposed clampdown after abrogating Articles 370 and 35A. Not expecting at night, an open shop in daylight was rare. Thousands had gone jobless; the economy was suffering loss of millions.

A few days later, when he was returning after bringing back the steel tiffin-box, at about midnight, the 29-year-old thought about many of those like his friend, “working in the private and government sector, who couldn’t get homemade meals during office hours.” 

“I have also faced the same issue when I was working in the marketing sector. One ends up eating in a restaurant and negatively impacting health. It is because of no tiffin service here. So, I asked myself, why don’t I open one?” 

Clampdown taught us new ways of communicating and I decided to keep my business on phone-calling.

Today, sitting inside a café next to his fiancé, Nida Rehman, he recalls her cold response towards the idea. “She was asleep and just nodded to my words,” he recounts. “Next morning, she called me again asking for details and said, ‘You should go for this.’”

But prior to that, thinking of “missing tiffin service in our region” throughout the night, Mr. Ahmad had prepared his mind to start delivering home-made food in Kashmir.

He was “110 percent” confident about his plan; but it wasn’t enough. “I couldn’t even have dreamt of all the challenges that I faced,” he recalls of his yet-to-come struggle. Upon discussing with friends – inside and outside Kashmir – many concerns popped-up: “Hartals?” “Internet gags?”

His friends were supportive, though. For instance, during the internet ban, one of his friends applied for a licence with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on his behalf.

Expecting the challenges, he decided to keep his venture independent of internet services. “Clampdown taught us new ways of communicating,” he says. “And I decided to keep my business on phone-calling.” 

But there were more concerns than just political uncertainty. His finances were also tight. “I withdrew all my savings [45,000 rupees],” recalls Mr. Ahmad. “Later, I borrowed 80,000 rupees from my group of friends and bought a used car, [Tata] Nano [for delivery and logistic support].”

“I wanted to give my business a native name, which will appeal to everyone,” says Mr. Ahmad. “So we finally settled down on Tiffin Aaw (Tiffin came).” And the tagline – “homemade fresh and healthy food” – reflects the root of his idea. 

“I decided to serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian Kashmiri homemade recipes,” he says. “I ensured that there are no artificial colours, preservatives, artificial tasting, and extra spices in the food.” Hence, the green and red in the logo represent vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals respectively.

It makes me happy. People have started calling me dabbawala or Tiffin-Man.

The menu is weekly – so are bills – and on rotation to provide varied food to the customers. Currently, Tiffin Aaw is serving eighteen seasonal dishes; with summer in the closet, he will not shy away from experimenting either. A tiffin-box costs between seventy-nine to 129 rupees. No delivery charges.

His 50-year-old mother, Aamina Akhtar, brings the homemade taste to the food. A professional cook from Tangmarg, north Kashmir, Abdul Majeed, is her helping hand in the kitchen.

Mr. Ahmad had been working in an advertising agency since tenth grade. Applying his more-than-a-decade experience of marketing, he kick-started Tiffin Aaw on 3 February. On the first day, he delivered about twenty tiffin-boxes – packed inside a cardboard box and wrapped in a blanket to keep them warm – at a call center in his car.

When he stepped inside the hall, the employees applauded him for his initiative and efforts to bring food on time. “It was an emotional moment for me,” says Mr. Ahmad. “I cried after seeing their warm response; that moment gave me my identity.”

Currently, he delivers in Srinagar but is optimistic in expanding it across the Valley. Sameer Ahmad, a businessman, thinks that the rice with chicken yakhni was worth his money; a parent from Kupwara, north Kashmir, is less anxious for his son’s meal in Srinagar.

From receiving orders via calls to delivering them on time, Mr. Ahmad is a one-man army. But he wants to employ more people and generate job opportunities for others. To be able to afford extra workforce, he has submitted a plan at Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) for expanding his services. If that happens, he will take the service round the clock.

As of now, he is at “no profit – no loss.” But he hopes that it might change as he expands or grows his market. Within twenty-three days of his service, Mr. Ahmad has delivered more than 500 orders. The people’s encouraging response is driving him; “It makes me happy. People have started calling me dabbawala or Tiffin-Man.”

Kaisar Andrabi is a features writer at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 2-8 March 2020 print edition.

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