A woman holding a cup - Knitting

Walk into the bright green building on the corner of Fleming Street and Margaret Street, and you are immediately greeted by the tropical smell of coconuts and bananas and the sound of blenders whirring away piles of fresh organic fruit. Vibrantly colored produce overflows from buckets and freshly made vegan banana bread, protein bars, and energy bars line the counters.

The only thing missing from this hip eatery is the thick smell of fried oil and the 7 pound, industrial size cans of “fresh” vegetables packed in water.

Well, not exactly missing.

At Help Yourself, all of the entrees, wraps, salads, and treats are organic and made from scratch.  There are no refined sugars, white flour, dairy products, or bad fats.  Unlike many other healthy eateries, there are no meat alternative products here, like soy veggie burgers, Tofurky, or other mysterious non-meats shaped into meat form.  Owner and Chef Charlie Wilson says, “We do serve meat here.  If you’re going to eat chicken, you should eat real chicken, not fake chicken that’s made with soy or contains lots of fillers.”

Other meat choices include wild salmon and local shrimp. Menu options offer a lot of items that can be easily customized to any diet—-low carb, vegan, gluten-free, low-salt.

Got Nuts?
If there’s no dairy, then what the heck is in the milk, ice cream, or cream cheese?  The milk is actually coconut milk made right there on Fleming from dried coconut and then served as a drink or used in ice cream or the house-cultured yogurt.

Plus, coconuts seem more plentiful that cows in the Florida Keys.  The cream cheese is made from cashews, and the smoothies are made from frozen organic fruit blended with coconut water and agave nectar.

Organic water…seriously
Outside a rain barrel sits in an inconspicuous corner collecting water, which is then used to water the plants and herbs growing in front of the restaurant.  Currently a banana tree, goji berry tree, aloe plant, basil, mint, and oregano are growing and used in menu items.
Among the best things I sampled there were the lasagna and the maple walnut ice cream.  The lasagna was no Italian grandma’s version (one serving seemed to last a week), but plenty good.  Made as a raw entrée, it’s served at room-temperature with layers of zucchini, brazil nut meat, spinach, tomatoes, and pesto.  It was surprisingly satisfying and fresh-tasting, instead of heavy and greasy.  Maple nut ice cream, made from coconut milk, had a subtle sweet flavor and plenty of candied walnut chunks.  It had a smooth texture, but was not quite as creamy or rich as regular moo-cow ice cream.

Everyone’s invited
Customer Terri Spottswood stopped by on a Sunday morning to order a wild salmon sandwich.  “It’s an energizing wrap and I need energy because I have a lot more work to do,” says the Key West mom and workaholic.  She likes the healthy and fast option in the midst of busy work days and gushes, “It’s good and healthy food.  It makes me feel like I did something good for myself when I eat here.”

Phil Burston, a Navy serviceman and vegan, is a regular customer.  His favorites are the Key West Coconut Curry over quinoa and the non-dairy ice cream.  He enthused, “I always feel so rejuvenated after eating here and I love the food.  I mean, it’s pricier than the 99 cent fast-food burgers than my friends eat, but I’d rather be paying more for good, healthy food than paying for a coronary bypass in twenty years.”  He appreciates the wide choices of vegan-friendly menu selections, which is hard for him to find in most other restaurants.

At Help Yourself, food is carefully picked from companies with similar values.  They support small, local businesses, organic farmers, and buy from companies who donate profits to charity.  Charlie and the other employees know where all of the food comes from and the ingredients and nutritional value in every product they make. The tempeh is handmade by a man in Florida and the eggs come from a small chicken farm on Ramrod Key.  Fresh bread is supplied by Cole’s Peace Artisan Bakery, and much of the produce comes from the Waterfront Market. Rest assured that all meat products come from healthy and happy animals that come from better living conditions than our visitors during Mini Season.

Said Charlie, “This is real food instead of chemicals, pesticides and hormones.”

Continuing with passion, she said, “It’s more than just a restaurant.  This place is about helping customers help themselves by providing good food, education, and the whole experience for them to learn fun facts about nutrition and ingredients.”

From French to Fresh
Trained as a classical French chef at Le Cordon Bleu in London, where she majored in butter and cream, Charlie once loved steak, potatoes, and sweets as her favorite foods.  After suffering from digestive problems and finding no answers from medical doctors, she was drawn to whole foods and nutrition for healing.  She studied nutrition and creative preparation of whole foods at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NY.  Now her favorite food is big green leafy vegetables.  She said, “I feel so great now after eating this way that I just couldn’t go back.  It’s the same foods, but the bad ingredients are replaced with good ones.”

While she’s not sailing, kiteboarding, or practicing yoga, Charlie is thinking up new ways for organics and health to grow in the Keys.  During the next season of the winter farmer’s market, Charlie hopes to expand it into a big community event with more vendors, local growers, artists, and musicians, educational workshops, and kids’ activities.

Help Yourself is located at 829 Fleming in Key West. Get a hold of them by calling (305) 296-7766 or visiting www.helpyourself.com. Help Yourself! by Sandy Sun Kaster

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