Ming Yee cultivated his culinary skills growing up in his parents’ Naples restaurant, Tokyo Sushi, one of the first to bring sushi to the city in the ’90s. Though he loved cooking and serving in a fast-paced setting, he was less inspired by American dining habits. “I would see how much people would eat—so much meat, fried food, soda,” he recalls. “I thought there must be a better way to eat.”
After high school, Yee thought he’d veer away from the restaurant industry. He enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) with interest in dentistry and environmental science. While there, a friend’s struggle with Crohn’s disease brought up more questions about the impact of diet and conventional medicine. “We found ourselves at the naturopath. She advised a plant-based diet, and I was impressed to see my friend’s health improve overnight,” he recalls. “I realized how interconnected things are—what you eat, how it’s grown, your health, the health of the planet.”
The experience inspired him to start thinking more holistically. Soon after, in 2016, Yee left FGCU and returned to his culinary roots, launching Café Nutrients as a plant-based stall at the Third Street South Farmer’s Market. His stock of organic superfoods, like fermented kimchi, sprouts and edible essential oils, proved so popular that, the following year, he opened a 16-seat restaurant—one of the only in Southwest Florida to offer a fully plant-based menu. In 2020, he moved the restaurant to a new, larger location. “We want to provide a culinary experience that is clean, conscious and sustainable,” the soft-spoken 26-year-old says. “Food has a strong direct impact on health, so we incorporate a lot of superfoods and grains like black garlic and quinoa.”
The all-day menu offers light plates with American and international influences, like the bestselling Southwest bowl, a cornucopia of textures with crunchy blue corn chips, buttery avocado, jackfruit, black beans and locally sourced vegetables; The Ming bowl, with chewy kelp noodles, housemade walnut “meat” and a refreshing Asian-inspired sesame-lime dressing; and the seasonal Chimichurri Shroom bowl starring umami-packed shiitake, trumpet, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms from Care2Grow farm (another newcomer in the gourmet healthy food space). Protein-packed breakfast burritos, avocado toast, platters of roasted vegetables, fresh juices, smoothies and housemade plant-based sweets, like an on-point chocolate chip cookie, round out the options. Most components are made in-house with ingredients from local organic farms, including 12 Seasons Farm in Fort Myers, Inyoni Organic Farm in Naples and Punta Gorda’s Worden Farm. “If I can’t get an ingredient locally or seasonally, I prefer not to offer it on the menu,” Yee says. “This helps ensure quality and keeps the money in the community.”
Growing sustainable local connections is a key component of Café Nutrients’ conscious-dining philosophy. “Conscious dining is about being aware of the impact of your choices on a multitude of interconnected factors: ecological health, community health and your [physical] health,” he says. The restaurant’s design espouses those virtues. Cucumbers, bell peppers, green onions and Cuban oregano grow in a container garden along the sidewalk. Inside, the casual space abounds with potted plants, and a neon sign glows in the corner with the letters TPWK (Treat People with Kindness). The open kitchen lends a sense of transparency, and it flows into the bar, which offers hard-to-find, organic and biodynamic wines and superfood mocktails. And throughout the space, the work of other small businesses is on display. Bonita Springs’ Black Mangrove Woodworks built the plywood-and-steel tables, shelves and other furniture, while hand-painted flamingos by local artist Sandi Badash lend a subtropical vibe. Botanical, small-batch candles from Fort Myers’ The Herb Appeal are for sale, as are cold-pressed, grab-and-go juices by Naples’ Jugos Juice. Order takeout, and it can be packed into a Bekko Box, an area startup that offers stylish, sustainable, reusable to-go containers for a nominal fee.
“We get all kinds [of customers] … UPS guys on the run, students getting coffee and Wi-Fi, the retired snowbirds after a round of golf. It’s by design,” Yee says. “We don’t want to alienate or push any philosophical agenda about plant-based food. You don’t need to be vegan. Everyone in the community is welcome.” A woman in her 70s recently stopped in to chat with Yee. Her doctors and family encouraged her to eat more plant-based, whole foods. Café Nutrients made the transition easier. She’s now at about a 60 percent plant-based diet and feels happier and healthier. “I’ve always wanted to do something that helps people,” Yee says. “We want to inspire our customers to become aware of the power of their choices, to start eating and living more consciously.”