Thistle founders Ash Cheriyan (left) and Shiri Avnery. (Photo/Courtesy)
Thistle founders Ash Cheriyan (left) and Shiri Avnery. (Photo/Courtesy)

Veggie-forward meal service Thistle is grounded in family roots

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Sometimes, feeding yourself a healthy meal just seems like too much effort. It requires planning, shopping, cooking and, most importantly, the luxury of time to do it all.

I found myself in one of those situations recently, as I was clearing out my parents’ place in Southern California after my father’s recent passing. My days were emotionally and physically exhausting. Having ready-made meals in the fridge that were both healthy and delicious, like a vegetarian tagine, a chickpea pasta with artichoke hearts and a tofu veggie curry, felt like a godsend.

Many people don’t need extreme circumstances to feel overwhelmed about providing healthy meals for themselves or their families. Just the demands of regular life can do that.

Shiri Avnery and her husband, Ashwin Cheriyan, understood that well. They were living in New York, working long days and eating a lot of takeout when they had their “aha” moment.

“It was a real wakeup call, as we noticed how it made us feel,” Avnery said. “We didn’t want to eat this way, but we didn’t know what to do, as we didn’t have time to cook.”

Avnery, who has a Ph.D. in science, technology and environmental policy, thought a lot about the “two challenges of our generation, the health crisis in terms of all these diet-driven products and lifestyles, and this growing environmental crisis,” she said.

She and her husband, a lawyer, considered not only the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, but also how the factory farming of cows takes such a major toll on the environment, contributing to climate change through the production of methane gas and polluting the air and water.

Thistle's chile verde rice bowl (left) and tahini falafel salad. (Photo/Courtesy)
Thistle’s chile verde rice bowl (left) and tahini falafel salad. (Photo/Courtesy)

The couple moved to San Francisco in 2013 “because that’s where you go if you want to try something new and have a startup,” she said. It’s where they founded Thistle, a plant-focused meal delivery service.

Avnery, Thistle’s president and co-founder, is 41. She grew up in the Boston area, the daughter of Israeli immigrants. Culinarily speaking, she said she got the best of both worlds. Her father is from Iraq, and her mother is from Eastern Europe. Her father, who attended the Technion in Haifa, came to the U.S. to work as an engineer. He was the youngest of nine in his family and the only one born in Israel. Her mother worked toward a Ph.D. while raising her three children in America.

To this day, one of Avnery’s favorite comfort foods is kubbeh, an Iraqi beet soup with semolina dumplings. It was something her family ate on Shabbat.

“In my home there was a focus on fresh produce, whole foods, nuts, seeds and abundant herbs and spices,” she said. “That became a core memory for me, that that’s what food should be. I was eating in this healthy, Mediterranean way my whole life and took it for granted. I really came to appreciate how important eating this way was for my Jewish identity, as it was a way to celebrate our history and culture.”

She and her husband started Thistle when there was already stiff competition among meal delivery services, and they needed to differentiate their company. Relying on a Mediterranean way of eating was one way to do that.

The in-house technology they’ve created helps with practical aspects of the business, enabling them to source the right amount of raw ingredients, create fully prepared meals for customers in different parts of the country and let customers change their subscriptions from week to week.

“We tried all of these different business models and landed on where we are now, the subscription model, that has a lot of advantages,” Avnery said. “That way our customers can plan by setting it and forgetting it and knowing their meals will just show up at their door like magic.”

Thistle delivery is available throughout California, in five other Western states and, since December, in New York, New Jersey, the Philadelphia area and Washington, D.C. Connecticut, Rhode Island and the Boston area are expected additions this year.

Thistle focuses on vegetarian and vegan meal plans, though its “omnivore” plans offer the option of adding 3 ounces of chicken, turkey or pork to some meals. Beef, however, is never on the menu because of its environmental impacts. All of Thistle’s dishes are free of dairy, gluten, refined white sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, additives and dyes. They are also full of fiber and include some nutrient-dense superfoods like spirulina.

Recent menu items have included a Tahini-Java Smoothie Bowl, Miso Squash Bowl, Moroccan Roasted Veggie Salad, Red Beet Hummus with Crudités, Lemon Pea Pesto Pasta, Mango Jicama Salad, Thistle Kale Caesar, Chile Verde Soup and a Peanut Butter Mousse Cup.

While delivery services for meal kits and fully prepped meals offer convenience, there is an issue with plastic waste. Thistle hopes to shift to reusable containers to fulfill its commitment to sustainability, Avnery said, but so far plastic is the most efficient. (Their insulated delivery bags and ice packs can be returned and then reused.) Avnery said the company will keep trying to resolve this issue.

She had thought a bit about how being Jewish fit into Thistle’s origin story before we spoke. While it’s easy to see the Middle Eastern influences in Thistle’s global menu — with ingredients such as za’atar and tahini regularly on the menu — she said she had always identified with Judaism’s emphasis on social justice.

That, combined with an influential eighth-grade teacher who made Earth science come alive for her, has put her at the forefront of a company trying to offer healthy food and address climate change at the same time.

“Judaism’s emphasis on social justice made a lasting impression on me,” she said, “and it became the framework for being able to create a business that’s grounded in a response to do what we can to help heal the world around us.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."