By Vic Dolcourt

Red quinoa saladAshwin Cheriyan and Shiri Avnery are committed to helping busy people eat mindfully and healthfully. They do that through Thistle, their Berkeley-based meal delivery service that emphasizes the benefits of organic, plant-based foods as well as sustainably raised meat. Thistle recently launched its delivery service in a few neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and is now offering once-a-week shipping to all California addresses with plans to expand to other states.

“We’re really focused on four things,” said Ashwin. “First, we want to surprise and delight our patrons with our ever-changing menu of locally-sourced, plant-based organic foods; second, we want to provide the highest level of customer service; third, we want to be an employer who cherishes and rewards our staff; and fourth, we want to be good environmental stewards and manage resources effectively.”

What makes Thistle tick (or bloom, actually)

Thistle competes among a number of meal delivery services in the Bay Area. Some are impulse based – I want to eat now! Delivery is usually within 30 minutes. Others, like Thistle, are based on a little planning up front – I’m a busy person, and I know I need my dinners covered Monday through Thursday. Thistle allows you to set up a flexible subscription within 60 seconds and get meals, cold-pressed juices and healthy snacks delivered to your doorstep throughout the week like magic.

Thistle also caters to people who care about what they are eating and where their food comes from. Ashwin noted, “My wife and cofounder, Shiri, did her PhD thesis on global food systems. We care very deeply about the impact of food on the environment, and for that reason we seek local sources of organic fruits, vegetables and humanely raised meats. We nurture our production team, and as a result, our meals are packed with quality, flavor and care. Our customers know that our meals are healthy and free from harmful additives. We don’t take shortcuts.”

Thistle launched in mid-2013 as a cold-pressed juice company – convenient nutrition in a bottle. Soon, however, they extended their offerings to nutritious meals made with seasonal, organic, plant-based foods. They also discovered that their customers, for the most part, were not impulse on-demand diners. Instead, their customers tended to plan meals and dining times. Accordingly, Thistle moved to a subscription model – the customer subscribes to a meal plan which includes type of meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner), time of delivery, vegetarian or non, and number days per week. The subscription is fully flexible and customizable – customers can log in and change delivery addresses, substitute meals, add healthy snacks, or pause / cancel anytime – but also allows customers to set it and forget it as needed.

Customize, then trust

Thistle meals are all naturally gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free, and the company accommodates a number of allergies and dietary preferences. Although it is not overt on the Thistle website, the vegetarian meal option is vegan. “We don’t want people to think that vegan means flavorless and dull, so we don’t emphasize it,” said Ashwin. “Also, we don’t advertise that everything we make is completely free of gluten. There is none in our cooking environment. Again, we don’t want people to think that gluten-free means something is missing from our food. We don’t make an issue of it. We’re able to cook exciting and flavorful meals, and that is what sells Thistle.”

Ashwin pointed out an interesting paradox: “You recognize that Thistle subscribers’ only choices for meals are how many and which type (breakfast, lunch or dinner) of meals they want, and whether they want a vegan or non-vegan option. But we choose the actual menu. The way this works is trust. Our subscribers tell us their requirements, and they trust us to make that happen. We provide the surprise and excitement with our continually changing menu. Our staff is constantly trying out new combinations of ingredients that vary as the season progresses. We are blessed being in California with local access to the best produce and to partners who practice sustainable farming.”

The technology facilitates the human touch and drives delivery efficiency

The technology behind the website is intended to bring subscribers in contact with customer service, rather than replace it, so subscribers can easily discuss customizing their plan, suspend food delivery while they are traveling or engage in digital chat. Thistle wants its customers and prospective customers to talk with customer support and interact in real-time with real people during business hours. In the unlikely event of issues, customer service is empowered to correct them.

Ashwin said that technology at Thistle transcends the customer experience. It’s the back-office operation that gives Thistle an edge. “You can’t buy off-the-shelf food delivery and food logistics software that meets our needs and works at our scale. We had to develop applications from the ground up, and our engineers are continuously fine-tuning them. We have to be at the top of our game when we are preparing and delivering thousands of meals. Our customers’ expectations are high, and food business margins are difficult if not properly managed. Think of one of your favorite take-out places. Many of them are still using fax machines and telephone ordering. Our back-office software is involved with customer ordering, meal preparation, meal customization (e.g. allergen accommodation), plating, delivery logistics, forecasting demand, and data analytics.”

Unique geography and outlook

I asked Ashwin why Thistle started out in the Bay Area instead of New York, where he was a mergers and acquisition lawyer who tired of the M&A scene. He said that aside from the fact that family is here, he and Shiri saw that people in the Bay Area were more focused on what they were eating and from where the food is sourced. And that has proven to be true. What’s next for Thistle? Ashwin said that he is seeing growing public awareness for responsible sourcing and the desire for mindful eating develop in other areas of the country, and as those interests spread, Thistle plans to expand.

You can learn more about Thistle from its website. And if you have any questions, you’ll see how easy it is to chat with a real person.