bad vegan

A beloved celebrity vegan, a $2m fraud, and the Domino’s pizza that brought her down

Bad Vegan, a new Netflix documentary, chronicles the downfall of Melngailis, who has alleged her husband exercised outsized influence on her. Clémence Michallon takes a closer look

Thursday 17 March 2022 15:04
<p>Sarma Melngailis in Netflix’s ‘Bad Vegan'</p>

Sarma Melngailis in Netflix’s ‘Bad Vegan'

Pure Food and Wine, a now-defunct vegan restaurant, hit the New York food scene at just the right time. It opened in 2004, when the idea of raw vegan cuisine still seemed novel enough to elicit curiosity. Tucked at the bottom of a building in the Gramercy neighborhood, a block east of Union Square, it became one of the city’s first fully raw eateries. From the onset, it generated buzz, catching the attention of food bloggers.

Behind the venue was co-founder and owner Sarma Melngailis. A native of Newton, Massachusetts with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the prestigious Wharton School, she worked at a couple of investment firms before changing gears and enrolling in culinary school. Melngailis graduated from the International Culinary Center, then known as the French Culinary Institute, just a few years before opening Pure Food and Wine.

For a while, the restaurant seemed to thrive. It became a hot spot for celebrities – Alec Baldwin and his wife Hilaria Baldwin have said it was the site of their first meeting; Boy George was once interviewed by The New York Times over servings of Pure Food and Wine’s cauliflower and sweet-corn polenta. New York magazine praised its “delightful” food and its staff’s “blissful lack of pedantry”. In 2009, the actor Alicia Silverstone, in a food journal column for Grub Street, reported feasting on the venue’s “amazing arugula salad with hazelnuts and ‘cheese’”, a vegan cheese plate – “beautifully done and so delicious” – and “a mint-chip ice-cream sundae that was so incredible”.

But a few years later, in 2015, Pure Food and Wine imploded. Employees walked out twice that year over alleged unpaid wages. Melngailis apparently disappeared twice. “She’s truly fallen off the map,” a former employee told Gothamist that July.

What happened to Melngailis around that time is the subject of an upcoming true-crime documentary coming to Netflix. Bad Vegan, which will be released by the platform on 16 March, will chart Melngailis’s meeting with Anthony Strangis, a man she eventually married and who she alleged exercised outsized influence on her, promising her vast rewards if she unquestioningly acquiesced to his requests, no matter how bizarre.

Woody Harrelson, Sarma Melngailis, Pure Food and Wine chef Matthew Kenney, and actor Jason Lewis at the celebration of the documentary film ‘Go Further’ (starring Harrelson) on 8 November 2004 in New York

The tale, according to Netflix, is that of a woman who once sat at the top of New York’s vegan food chain, until she met Strangis on Twitter, began “draining her restaurant’s funds and funneling the money to [him]”, at one point believing he had the powers to make “her beloved pitbull immortal”, only to end up on the lam, accused of stealing almost $2m from the restaurant and its employees. Their run ended in 2016, when Strangis placed an order for – of all things – Domino’s pizza under his real name, enabling law enforcement to locate him and Melngailis.

In hindsight, there were early signs of trouble in the story of Pure Food and Wine.

Matthew Kenney, the restaurant’s original chef and Melngailis’s one-time boyfriend, left in 2005 and was sued by restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, with whom Melngailis had opened the venue. This happened after Kenney and Melngailis broke up. Chodorow accused Kenney of allegedly luring former Pure Food and Wine employees away for his own venture; Kenney denied the claims and told The New York Times “a few employees” had contacted him and he had “the letters to prove it”. Melngailis, meanwhile, told the paper: “The whole thing is very complicated so I’d rather not comment.”

Not too long after, in 2007, Melngailis – who by then had launched several other ventures in addition to Pure Food and Wine – hinted at more trouble in a blog post.

According to Vanity Fair, she replied to an email in which someone described her life as a “dream life”: “And so I’m thinking, these people would all probably choke on their flax crackers if they knew that not only am I walking around often feeling entirely spent, weary and even on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that I’m also carrying a few hundred thousand dollars of personal debt . . . that I’m full of burning rage to build this empire . . . with a residual and occasionally reappearing destructive closet eating disorder.”

But none of this compares to what transpired after Melngailis met Strangis.

The two are believed to have started communicating in 2011, through Twitter. Melngailis’s team alleged to Vanity Fair that Strangis used the platform to interact with Alec Baldwin’s account (Baldwin was a Pure Food and Wine customer and, by then, a friend of Melngailis’s). Strangis’s attorney denied that Strangis had used the accounts or handles linked to the claim, or that he had sought to place himself in Baldwin’s virtual orbit.

Bad Vegan trailer.mp4

Melngailis and Strangis met in person for the first time in November 2011, according to Vanity Fair. They are believed to have married around December 2012 (a marriage license was issued to them on 5 December, per the magazine; marriage licenses are valid in the state of New York for a period of 60 days after they are issued). She introduced him to Pure Food and Wine “sometime in 2013”, Forbes reported in 2017.

Authorities would later allege that Strangis started spending Melngailis’s money. According to an indictment produced in May 2016, “from January 2014 to January 2015 … Melngailis transferred over $1.6m from the business accounts to her personal bank account. Strangis spent nearly $1m of these funds at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, over $200,000 at the Mohegan Sun Resort Casino in Connecticut, over $80,000 at specialty watch retailers, including Rolex and Beyer, over $70,000 at hotels in Europe and New York and over $10,000 on Uber car rides. He also withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.”

Meanwhile, according to a version of events told to Vanity Fair by a source (or sources) close to Melngailis and disputed by Strangis’s attorney, Strangis had allegedly begun to make a variety of claims (including that Melngailis’s computer had been hacked and she needed to email his text expert her login information; that some of her relatives and employees were “red shirts”, aka bad people; and that Melngailis had to undergo a series of “tests” which, according to Melngailis, would supposedly empower her).

“I would have access to unlimited resources so that I could grow my brand all over the world, make the documentary I always wanted to make – the one that would finally change people’s ways and help eradicate factory farming. Basically, I could do all the world-changing things I’d been quietly dreaming about. I could help whoever I want, and stay young forever doing it,” she told Vanity Fair. At one point, Melngailis said, he allegedly convinced her that “among the things I’d be granted”, her dog Leon would “be immortal and safe to be by my side for eternity”. (Strangis’s attorney denied those claims when they were reported by Vanity Fair.)

Sarma Melngailis with her dog Leon

According to the indictment issued against Melngailis and Strangis, Melngailis stopped being present at her companies, including Pure Food and Wine, in 2014, “but told staff via emails she was working to grow and expand the business”, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office stated in 2016. She was allegedly unable to pay employees in April, May, July, August, and November of that year. “In August 2014, Strangis (as ‘Shane Fox’) held a staff meeting and made numerous false statements, including a claim that he was in the process of buying the company ‘on paper,’” the DA’s office added. “In January 2015, paychecks bounced, leaving 98 workers without pay. They refused to work, despite the owner’s urging, and the business closed.”

In February 2015, Melngailis allegedly sought investments from former patrons to reopen the venture, and, authorities contended, “falsely stated that she had to withdraw money in 2014 to help her mother”. “Based on her representations, four people invested a total of $844,000 and she used some of this money to pay back former employees and settle other bills,” the DA’s office stated.

After Pure Food and Wine reopened, Melngailis allegedly sought to reassure investors by telling them she was looking to sell the business to a man called Michael Caledonia. In May 2015, an investor allegedly discovered that Caledonia was actually Strangis.

“By June 2015, Melngailis had allegedly transferred over $400,000 from the business accounts to her personal account,” the DA’s office wrote.

“She withdrew over $100,000, transferred over $300,000 to Foxwoods on behalf of her husband and charged nearly $25,000 in the Connecticut casinos, according to the investigation. When employees’ paychecks bounced again, she sent them texts and emails promising to fix everything and threatening to fire anyone who refused to work, the investigation found. In July 2015, the employees shuttered the company for good. The defendants allegedly defrauded 84 workers of up to $3,500 each for a total of over $40,000.”

Melngailis and Strangis are believed to have left New York in the summer of 2015, according to the DA’s office. They were allegedly tracked down in ​​Las Vegas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. It was in the latter state that they were arrested on 10 May 2016, at a hotel in Sevierville (about 20 miles from Knoxville), where, according to Vanity Fair, they had been “holed up for 40 days and 40 nights” – until an order for a “non-raw, non-vegan cheesy pie (plus a side of chicken wings)” from Domino’s gave their location away.

Between the two of them, Melngailis and Strangis faced charges including second-degree grand larceny, second-degree criminal tax fraud, and first-degree scheme to defraud. They each faced up to 15 years in prison. Both took plea deals. Melngailis pleaded guilty in May 2017 to grand larceny, criminal tax fraud, and a scheme to defraud, the New York Post reported at the time. She served four months in Rikers Island and was released in October 2017 with an additional five years of probation. Strangis spent a year behind bars between May 2016 and May 2017; he was also sentenced to five years of probation as part of his own plea deal.

Bad Vegan will air on Netflix on 16 March.

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