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Perks of a vegan boss are many, but not meaty

Virginia CEO offers workers free meals in firm's 'Vegeteria'

ROANOKE, Va. -- For telephone company CEO Norm Mason, a vegan and lifelong animal lover, there was never any doubt what he would offer at his company cafeteria.

Soy steaks and soy sloppy joes, veggie burgers, nachos, and other meatless, eggless, butter-free delicacies are cooked daily using heavy bags of texturized vegetable protein.

If that doesn't sound good, consider this: It's all free.

Mason says he created the Vegeteria out of concern for the well-being of his 200 employees at Cat Communications International. So he is giving them all the fresh vegetables, meat substitutes, cakes, and drinks they could want.

''This was a way to say: 'Look, we don't feel it's right to have the flesh of an animal, an animal killed for your benefit,' " Mason said. ''I see it no different than smoking. People are asked to go outside and smoke."

He also hopes it will teach them respect for animals, he said, a value symbolized by Lucille, the paralyzed dog he adopted who follows workers around on a little wheeled contraption.

Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said Mason is part of a growing number of vegetarian and vegan CEOs, including Steve Jobs of Apple Computers Inc., Michael Eisner from Walt Disney Co., John Mackey of Whole Foods Market Inc., and Bill Ford of Ford Motor Co., who have made it easier for employees to eat meat-free.

''They haven't actually prohibited eating meat, but they've certainly increased exponentially the vegan offerings in their cafeterias," Friedrich said.

But Mason, who is a PETA member, wants to go beyond catering to current vegetarians. He sees a person's craving for meat as a nasty habit that can be broken. By providing free vegetarian lunches and stocking the room with information pamphlets about vegetarianism, Mason hopes to nudge his carnivorous employees toward a different lifestyle.

''We are, I think, addicted to the foods we are fed as children," he said. ''It's the fat and the sugar and the salt in our food that becomes so addictive."

Mason, 60, gave up meat about 25 years ago. He said he eased into it after a period of soul-searching about the food on his plate.

Since then, he has grown increasingly serious about the vegetarian lifestyle after researching -- and he is ready with statistics, if asked -- how many cows, pigs, and chickens people could save in a lifetime by not eating meat; the percentage of Americans who are obese; and the amount of damage the meat industry inflicts on the environment.

''It's pretty scary what we're doing to animals," he said.

Mason began offering vegetarian meals about four years ago. He has also established an Angels of Assisi office in the building that provides a discount spay and neuter service, an adoption center for cats and dogs, and a sanctuary for farm animals.

But Mason's carnivorous employees have been slow to reform.

''They have this thing called soyberry steak, instead of Salisbury steak," said Michaela Goodman, 19, a customer service worker, while picking at a plate of corn and coleslaw.

''It just didn't seem right. The fake meat stuff is not for me. I tried the nachos, though, and that looked about the same. It was pretty good."

While Goodman ate, workers filtered in and refilled soft drinks or nibbled on cake. A few stopped in front of the platters of sloppy joes, potato soup, lima beans, and fried potato wedges.

Ginger Hinkley, 33, was more practical about her salad. ''I'm not one of those veggies, but it's free," she said. ''Where else could you work and they'd actually give you free food?"

A few disgruntled employees called a local television station to protest that they are not able to bring meat into the Vegeteria. But Mason said they can eat meat -- they just have to take it into another company room, or go out for lunch.

''I try to combine as much preaching with living by example," Mason said. ''That's why the cafeteria is free. Nobody's forced to eat in the cafeteria. They can go somewhere else. If they want to spend their money, that is their right.

''But I hope through example, they would say, 'Hey, this is pretty good stuff.' "

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