Friday, September 6, 2013

Day 6: VeganMoFo. Let's Visit Help Yourself!

Let's get our organic on at Help Yourself, Key West!
Today is day number six of VeganMoFo. Since Monday, I have been to Key West four times. That's just crazy, but it's also how things work down here sometimes. Today we had some morning business downtown, and that suited me just fine since I wanted to stop in at Help Yourself before the day got rolling. I've blogged about Help Yourself before, but since this is the all-important VeganMoFo celebration, I would be absolutely remiss if I didn't include them in the spotlight.

When we first moved here, Help Yourself was just opening up. I cannot recall what was there before they took the small space over on Fleming, but the other half of the building was a laundromat. Help Yourself, at the time, was a very small organic food juice bar. They sold smoothies, wraps, their own coconut milk ice cream, and other similar items. Although not completely vegan, the menu was extensively vegan, and clearly marked. I don't have too many memories of my first few visits there beyond tasting their ice cream. It was delicious and they made it themselves. I would drive to Key West just for their homemade coconut milk vegan ice cream.

I vaguely remember the first time I met the owner of Help Yourself, her name is Charlie. She is youthful, vibrant, absolutely beautiful, and has this crazy cool accent which makes her seem extra smart. She made a commitment to the Key West community to bring us organic food. It was virtually a desert back when she arrived when it came to organic food. Back then, we had a home delivery organic food option from the mainland, not exactly a CSA. There may have been a CSA operating sporadically, but that I also do not recall. The mainstream markets had these ridiculously teeny tiny organic sections, which trust me I DO recall since I had also just recently opened, and was scrambling practically on a daily basis to source fresh organic produce and other vegan organic items. So much simply didn't exist down here. Charlie was one of the only beacons of light down here that I felt shared my vision of the need for organic food, and good food.

Meet Charlie, one of our local heroes!
Here she is at one of a series of food demo/cooking classes
she conducted over the holidays last year!
In time, my visits to Help Yourself became more frequent, and I sampled lots of things on the menu. In time, they also found their own way, changing menu items, trying new things, coming up with new ideas. And, in time Help Yourself were the ones who brought us a farmer's market. I'm keeping things positive on MoFo posts, but I would want to slap anyone silly who cracked about the size of the farmer's market. Yes, it was in the parking lot of the teeny tiny Help Yourself. But, to those of us in the know, it was the largest offering of fresh organic and local foods that perhaps this area had seen in a decade... for all I know, actually in forever. The market would be held one day a week, and locals were invited to set up and sell local fruits, jams, jellies, baked goods and such. Charlie would have fresh organic produce trucked down and set up tables in the parking lot with a plastic box, a scale and a cash register manned by someone always smiling. I remember the first time I got golden beets down here... it was at Help Yourself farmer's market. I remember the first time I got coconut aminos down here.... it was at one of those farmer's markets. I got papaya ketchup, starfruit jelly, mangoes, and other local grown and made items at those teeny markets. And, sometimes I even got coconut water on site from the Coconut Man who would travel around collecting coconuts in his jeep, then set up at the market with a big machete, and whack open the coconuts for anyone who wanted to buy the glorious coconut water.

Those markets were great. And, they began, finally, to catch on. They grew in size, and offerings. Somehow, at some point, Charlie made the decision to expand. The opportunity came when the laundromat next door was closing. When the machines were removed, the space was exposed for what it was.... needing extensive renovations (that's putting it mildly). Charlie was undeterred. She took over the space to fill her vision of a full time organic market. There were many obstacles and challenges for her to overcome. There were long delays due to bureaucracy as well as funding issues, and of course the fact that construction never goes as planned, it always takes longer and costs more than any estimates ever say. It mattered to Charlie, but it didn't matter. This is a driven woman, someone who this community needs... she simply is a "do-er." Where there is will, there is way, that is how I define Charlie. She is problem solver. She sets goals, and is undeterred, she WILL meet them.

She opened her market, moved the juice bar operation around a little bit, and began to settle into the next chapter of Help Yourself. The organic store is not big, but it contains incredibly high quality items. I feel very good when I shop in there as far as finest quality. I'm a person who depends more on quality of food, than quantity. I'm very picky personally, and for my business, about the country of origin of food, as well as that organic certification. And, when I eat out, I absolutely relish my food so much more knowing it didn't fall off a Sysco truck, but rather what is offered on those store shelves are the same brands and quality offered in that juice bar.

I read a "funny" in some magazine or something. It was a sketch of 2 people at a health food store, buying a juice or something. One person's balloon says something like "have you seen the price of this juice?!" while the other person says back "have you seen the price of cancer?"

There is not one time I have ever walked into Help Yourself and felt that I was being ripped off. I know the cost of real food, and I know the cost of organics. It's most unfortunate to us as citizens that these things cost more, but the simple fact is our government does not subsidize the organic growers and farmers. Further, to acquire the status of "certified organic" means huge volumes of money and red tape have been put forward by that small farmer. It's all backwards. If someone wants to grow RoundUp Ready wheat, heck no problem, Monsanto's got that covered, and they don't have to pay those fees, in fact our government will help them out. Yet, the small farmer is punished in their pocketbook for maintaining quality in their crops. This is largely how big corporate agribiz operates in this country today. I suppose that's one of the reasons why it was so long before a place like Help Yourself came along to help our community source better food.

The Help Yourself efforts are not limited to just their own business either. When the only organic produce distributor pulled out of the Keys a few years ago (gasp!) Charlie came to the rescue. She worked something out where she became a distributor, and she began filling the orders for businesses like us, and restaurants, that also wanted that quality of food. She rented a truck on a weekly basis, and in the beginning would trek up to the north mainland in the middle of the night to pick up the orders, and then make the drive back down, doing the deliveries. Always finding a way to overcome the ridiculous curves that are thrown at us constantly when doing business in the Keys.

This is the main area when you walk into Help Yourself.
Off camera to the left is the register area.
Off camera to the right is where you order for the juice bar.
My favorite thing on the menu at Help Yourself is called the "TLT" ... tempeh, lettuce and tomato. It's in a wrap with fresh veggies, but there's this secret sauce on their TLT that makes me want to bathe in it. I wish they'd sell it, but so far they don't. They do daily specials, grain bowls, soups, and juices. In the summer this year, they made some crazy watermelon juice concoction.... was it straight watermelon juice? I don't know.... it was absolutely divine. I know it was organic watermelon juice. As soon as I cracked the seal and took a sip, I was transported to another place. So delicious (I checked my archives, no pictures of that, shame on me). They have a great selection of juices and smoothies, offer fresh wheatgrass shots, fresh organic fair trade coffees, teas and lattes, fresh vegan baked goods, and the list pretty much seems endless. Also, the single most thing I love about Help Yourself (besides the people, of course!) is the fact that they are the ONLY place in Key West to get a hot vegan breakfast. Yup, right in that tiny juice bar, they do an all day breakfast. They make vegan french toast served with fruit (yeah, um, I know, I have indeed dedicated at least one entire post to my vegan breakfast experiences at Help Yourself in the past) but this is worth mentioning over, and over. And over. A hot vegan breakfast. It's delicious. Look, I'm running a freaking bed and breakfast, of COURSE I'm about breakfast! I love french toast, and pretty much feel like I've hit the lottery that they offer vegan french toast every day. It is absolutely delicious, dang I already said that.

We had lunch there on Tuesday. I had vegan cream of mushroom soup and a smoothie made from bananas, coconut milk, cacao nibs and cocoa. You can get it with palm sugar, but I omitted that. The other happy vegan had, of course, a TLT. Here in photos are some shots of the beautiful organic grocery and juice bar that is Help Yourself in Key West. They are open 12 months a year, and are exceptionally helpful and knowledgeable about food. Charlie especially is a treasure within our community, and I am exceptionally grateful for her dedication and perseverance in bringing her vision to life. Her dream has enriched our Key West and lower Keys community beyond anything I ever could have imagined!

Here's what was left of the other happy vegan's TLT on Tuesday...
he ate it so fast I was lucky to get a picture of the 2nd half before it vanished!
This was my soup, with a little dash of cashew cream.
To the right is my no added sugar smoothie, absolutely delicious!
I saw Charlie on Wednesday, and told her this was one of my most favorite
soup creations EVER at Help Yourself (yeah, I'm all about the 'shrooms!)
Here's part of the outside to Help Yourself.
The seating is somewhat limited, but it's really nice to sit here
and watch the day go by, you know?
Key West is a tiny speck on the map, real estate is precious,
and 99% of the small independent places in Key West
don't have the luxury of extra outdoor space.
We get to sit among the plant boxes, in the Paradise sun.
Nothing wrong about that!
This is a close up of the daily specials board.
Whoever does the writing, I wish they'd help me out with my board...
penmanship is not my forte', oh well.
Here's another shot of the juice bar, wider angle.
They've made really good use of the space, and you can see here
there's more organic non-perishable produce on racks adjacent to the cold cases.
This is another shot of the interior.
Almost the entire back wall is refrigerator cases full of
organic produce and other organic cold products.
The produce is always fresh, varied, and country of origin is provided!
Here's part of their menu.
See that "Chocolate Buzz" smoothie?
That's my favorite smoothie, they make it for me without the added sugar!
Sure there's chocolates and stuff available, but generally speaking,
the snacks are a cut above. Think kale chips. NOM!

Artisana is one of my favorite lines of "butters" and other products.
Charlie turned me onto their raw organic coconut butter, which I now
buy by the case!

A glimpse into the inner workings of their kitchen... it's BUSY!

Nice selection of organic extracts and other bakers needs.

Treeline Vegan Cheese? Yes please!

Close up of just a sliver of their organic produce offerings.
I went home with the sweetest organic USA grown strawberries on this visit!

Better choices for the home and body!
Nice selection of these types of items is available.
Help Yourself serves it's food on reusable plates.
They use biodegradable/compostable utensils.
They have separate containers to return dishes, as well as
separate buckets for trash and recycling.
Way to save the planet!  Thanks Help Yourself!
Whenever you're in Key West or the lower Keys, you simply cannot go wrong by including Help Yourself on the "must visit" places. You will leave well-nourished, both in mind and body. We love you Help Yourself!

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