While health is important, Lynchburg couple Ashley and Kate Mason said animal welfare is equally important to them. As a family of “ethical vegans,” they avoid consuming anything that would cause the exploitation of, or cruelty to, animals. It affects their food, clothing and many other choices.

Ashley Mason said the couple adopted an ethical vegan way of life in January 2018 after 12 years of vegetarianism.

“Veganism is not just our diet but the way we interact with the world. It is all about reducing or eliminating what possible harm we do,” he said.

And while veganism is a growing trend in the U.S. with many citing animal cruelty, personal health and environmental effect as reasons, many local vegans, such as the Masons, have struggled to dine out with their dietary restrictions.

According to the Masons and others, local restaurants slowly are adding more vegetarian and vegan options so customers can enjoy eating out.

A vegan consumes no animal products, while a vegetarian doesn’t eat animals but may eat products that come from them such as dairy, eggs and cheese.

Elizabeth Russell, owner of Urbavore, a vegan restaurant at 1103 Church St., said she regularly meets new customers who recently have adopted a vegan lifestyle.

“The need and demand for vegan food has been growing around the country for years, and we knew there was a need here in Lynchburg that wasn’t being met. We know this because, as vegans, our options for dining out were very limited compared to other cities we’d visited,” she said.

When opening the restaurant about two years ago, she said she wanted to keep it small and focus on the growing interest of vegan options downtown.

She made sure her menu was varied to meet different tastes; she said she has found those who still eat meat also enjoy the options at Urbavore.

“Vegan food is for everyone,” she said. “Vegan has always meant a lifestyle free of animal products. Anything tastes bland if it isn’t properly seasoned.”

According to Statista, an online portal for statistics, sales of vegan products are expected to grow worldwide between 2015 and 2020. Russell agrees with the statistics and said the vegan industry is growing.

“Growing awareness is creating a shift in what we eat, which is driving demand,” she said. “Lynchburg has responded positively to the vegan scene. There are more options on menus around town, and the grocery store has started to increase the number of products that are vegan alternatives to meat and dairy.”

Kate Mason said she has been able to translate most meals to vegan versions.

All grocery stores carry vegan products such as rice, beans, fruit, vegetables and pasta, which most people don’t recognize as vegan, she said. Meat and dairy alternatives are available at most local grocery stores.

The Depot Grille in downtown Lynchburg offers several options with tofu or tofu substitutes, and many Indian, Mexican and Asian restaurants have marked clearly on their menus which dishes are vegetarian-friendly. Many items at Tahini’s Mediterranean Grill on Main Street are vegan and Blaze Pizza on Wards Road offers vegan cheese, cauliflower crusts and a vegan spicy chorizo.

Justin Rogers, general manager at the Depot Grille, said since the restaurant’s opening in 2004, it has offered a Garden Grille Sandwich made of squash, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, carrots and other vegetables; the restaurant added tofu and a Black Bean Burger in 2014 to meet market demands.

“I think the market was starting to trend that way,” he said. “It’s obviously increased since then. You want to have some options to appeal to everyone. I think it was smart to start adding some options because enough people were asking for it at that time.”

Ashley and Kate Mason said they are the healthiest they’ve ever been in their adult life and are now raising their children to be vegan as well. Kate Mason said she has lost nearly 20 pounds and improved her cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Overall, she said, her body functions better.

Ashley Mason said most of their meals are prepared at home because many restaurants have prepared foods that no longer are compatible with their way of living.

“This can have a socially isolating effect to a degree,” he said. “It is something one must accept when taking this ethical stance.”

The family enjoys Urbavore, which is the only completely vegan restaurant in Lynchburg, but they also frequent vegan-friendly restaurants such as Crisp and Millie’s Living Café.

Ashley Mason said he would like more vegan restaurants in high-traffic areas like Wards Road to expose the average person to this way of eating.

Shawn Merrow, owner and chef of Grey’s at 512 5th Street, said the restaurant offers some vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options and plans to add more to the menu in the future.

“I definitely see more people in the area wanting that,” he said. “I need to get in gear more and accommodate to those people.”

Most of the salads offered at the restaurant are vegan and there is now a gluten-free bread option.

It also serves a vegetarian chicken-fried cauliflower that is a big hit with meat-free customers.

Merrow said he also offers specials occasionally that are 100 percent vegan.

Karen Castanes, a Lynchburg resident and vegan for two years now, said the more she learned about animal cruelty and the effects of the meat and dairy industry on the environment, the less she could deal with continuing to eat them.

She and her husband were vegetarian for five years before becoming vegan and since then she said she has felt lighter after eating a meal and loves not having to worry as much about contamination when cooking and storing foods.

“It is one of the single most important decisions I’ve ever made and I feel like it’s changed my life in a really positive way,” she said.

The most challenging part of being a vegan, however, is finding alternatives at restaurants, but she said the hunt has become easier as more establishments have started offering more vegetarian and vegan options.

“More options are becoming available every day but restaurants can be tricky. Most places have vegetarian options but few have really good vegan options. We often feel like we need to go out of town to places like Richmond to get better options,” she said.

She said she loves Urbavore and its Pub Sammich, a sandwich with beer battered celery root, tomato and lettuce, while her husband enjoys the Buffalo Ranch burger. Ty Thai Cuisine in Wyndhurst offers a pad ginger with tofu and RA Bistro and King’s Island also offer vegan menu items she enjoys.

Castanes said she would like to see more restaurants offer options that don’t involve just picking three sides as a meal or salads with very few dressings that are available.

“I really do and I hope Lynchburg gets on board a lot more going forward,” she said. “I think it will grow because more and more people are realizing how important this is for the future of this planet.”

Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at (434) 385-5482.

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