The downfall of a glamorous restaurateur who was a darling of New York society and dubbed the ‘Queen of vegan cuisine’ is to be told in a new Netflix series detailing how she ended up in prison after disappearing with $2 million.
The trailer for Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives, a four-part series telling the story of the 49-year-old restaurateur who ran New York celebrity hotspot Pure Food & Wine, promises to rival Netflix’s other documentaries including Tinder Swindler and Tiger King with intrigue and crazy plot twists.
From the executive producer of Tiger King, Dan Lagana and director of Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened Chris Smith, the documentary’s trailer lays the scene for the story stranger than fiction.
Once dubbed ‘the Vegan Queen,’ Melngailis’ upscale restaurant was a favourite of A-listers including Chelsea Clinton, Tom Brady, Alec and Hilary Baldwin, Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson up until 2015, where she and her now estranged husband Anthony Strangis disappeared with $2million, leaving staff unpaid and investors out of pocket.
Melngailis claims Strangis conned and controlled her into funnelling her restaurant’s funds to him by promising to expand her food empire and – incredibly – to make her beloved dog immortal.
Netflix has just released a trailer for Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives, a four-part series telling the story of restaurateur Sarma Melngailis, 49, from New York’s Pure Food & Wine, pictured
Strangis (right) met Melngailis (left) on Twitter, where he went by ‘Shane Fox.’ Melngailis claims he conned her into funnelling her restaurant’s funds to him by promising to expand her food empire and – incredibly – to make her beloved dog immortal.
From January 2014 to January 2015, Melngailis transferred more than $1.6 million from the business accounts to her personal bank account.
In 2015, she disappeared, but was caught by police in 2016 after ordering a Domino’s Pizza.
Melngailis – who also wrote several raw food cookbooks – and Strangis took money from investors, didn’t pay $400,000 in taxes, and left employees out of pocket.
All the while, she spent $2 million at Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun Casinos, luxury jewellery, trips to Europe and Uber rides.
Melngailis’s camp she acted while under the coercive control of her husband.
She claims Strangis would warn her that if she did not pass certain tests to prove her loyalty, such as giving him money or performing oral sex while blindfolded, forces controlled by his brother would ‘gut’ him and come for her.
According to Vanity Fair, Melngailis claimed that Strangis, who had gain weight since they met, told her that dealing with his obesity was another test.
He also told her that her beloved pitbull Leon had been his dog in a previous life and the three of them had all been living together for a thousand years.
Melngailis believed that if she did what her husband told her, ‘Leon would also be immortal and safe to be by my side for eternity,’ Vanity Fair reported.
Strangis denies this account.
Melngailis is very attached to her dog Leon, pictured, who she rescued before meeting Strangis
Melngailis’s restaurant was beloved by celebs, including Woody Harrelson, left and Jason Lewis, right
Melngailis opens up about her shocking story in the upcoming Netflix do-series, which will drop on March 16 on the streaming platform
Sarma Melngailis pictured in Brooklyn court before she was sentenced to three months at Rikers Island
From January 2014 to January 2015, Melngailis transferred more than $1.6 million from the business accounts to her personal bank account. In 2015, she disappeared. But was caught by police in 2016 after ordering a Domino’s Pizza. She is pictured in court
In the early 2010s’, Melngailis was seen as a successful restaurateur, a Vegan food pioneer and a published author
Melngailis with Leon. The foodie disappeared with $2million taken from her own restaurant in Mai 2015
The glamourous restaurateur was a darling of food critics. Her Instagram bio reads she is still ‘mourning’ over Pure Food and Wine
Trouble began at the restaurant in January 2015 when 60 staff members said they weren’t being paid and subsequently staged multiple walk outs and protests.
Melngailis told her staff the delay in payment was due to changing banks, but told a magazine that same month it was because the restaurant had debts, and due to the high cost of premium ingredients.
In May 2015, she and Strangis disappeared with the money and the restaurant closed permanently in July of that year.
The new trailer starts with a recorded phone conversation between Melngailis and Strangis.
Sarma was the vegan darling of foodie New York in the 2010s and had published two vegan cookbooks by the time trouble began
The chef, who put vegan cuisine on the map in New York, is seldom ever seen without her dog Leon
The restaurateur will give her side of the story in Netflix’s upcoming documentary on Pure Food and Wine
The restaurateur also welcomed Kyle MacLachlan, right, before her establishment closed permanently in 2015
The New York restaurant was a night life hotspot that was beloved for its raw food vegan recipes
In 2015, the restaurant’s staff walked out twice, asking Melngailis to pay them after she failed to do so repeatedly
‘So I’m just supposed to do whatever you say and listen to your instructions,’ the restaurateur is heard saying.
‘You signed onto this. You told me you wanted happily ever after. If I tell you to take all your money out of the bank and light it on fire, do it,’ Strangis replies.
Former employees and sources close to the case are seen talking face to camera about the restaurateur’s establishment and how it was a ‘great place to work.
They also talk about the ‘mysterious’ circumstances surrounding Melngailis and Strangis’ marriage, suggesting there might have been some blackmail involved.
Sarma with fellow restaurateur Tobyn Britt in 2009 The actress Daryl Hannah, right, was also among Sarma’s fans at the height of her restaurateur career
Melngailis served three months in jail for her crimes after he trial came to a close in January 2017
The programme explored how the successful restaurateur, who was once dubbed the Vegan Queen, fell into crime
How Sarma Melngailis went from ‘plant food Queen’ to ‘Vegan Bernie Madoff’
2004: Sarma Melngailis opens Pure Food & Wine in New York
2005: She opens One Lucky Duck Juice and Takeaway next to the restaurant.
2011: Sarma meets Anthony Strangis on Twitter
December 2012: Strangis and Melngailis get married in New York.
2013: She brings Strangis in as a manager at her restauration business.
January 2015: Pure Food and Wine and One Lucky Duck staff walked out en-masse due to Melngailis’ failure to pay employees for a month.
Melngailis tells her staff the delay in payments is due to changing banks.
February 2015: Melngailis claims in an interview the delay in wages were actually caused by the restaurant’s debts and the cost of ingredients.
May 2015: Newspapers report the restaurateur has vanished with $2million.
July 2015: Staff walk out of the restaurant again and it is permanently closed.
May 2016: Melngailis and Strangis are arrested in Sevierville, Tennessee.
November 2016: Melgngailis claims she was under the control of Strangis.
May 2017: Melngailis pleads guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from an investor, and scheming to defraud, as well as criminal tax fraud charges.
June 2017: Former restaurateur is jailed for three months.
May 2018: She filed for divorce from Strangis.
Melngailis met Strangis in 2011 and brought him on board as a manager at the restaurant in 2013.
The relationship surprised many, with even Strangis’ own step-mother wondering what the successful, attractive businesswoman saw in her son, who was overweight and an alleged gambling addict.
In 2016, a source close to the former restaurateur claimed that Strangis resorted to cult-like techniques such as gaslighting, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation to control her while speaking to Vanity Fair.
The same source added Strangis convinced Melngailis that her computer had been hacked in order to get her passwords for all her devices, including e-mails, phone, and bank accounts.
Strangis refuted the claims through his lawyer at the time.
The novelist Porochista Khakpour, who was a close friend of Sarma at the time, told the magazine: ‘Sarma lost her mind. She really believed that her dog would live forever.
Speaking after the news of the arrest, Ron Levine, who said he was an investor wrote on Facebook: ‘She stole about $1 million from investors, including me, and disappeared last year.
‘The FBI was looking for her and she’s got a pile of lawsuits waiting for her in NY.’
He added: ‘I visited her restaurant every year and was happy to help her business, which I loved.
‘It was a sad and shocking betrayal. She hurt a lot of people.’
Another investor said at the time that Melngailis’ actions were ‘unbecoming of a vegan.’
She pleaded guilty in May 2017 to stealing more than $200,000 from an investor, and scheming to defraud, as well as criminal tax fraud charges. She received a nearly four-month jail sentence.
She was sentenced to three months in New York’s notorious Rikers prison.
As part of her punishment, she was also ordered to repay $1.5million in restitution payments.
Strangis pleaded guilty to four counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree. He was sentenced to one year in jail and five years probation and had to repay $840,000 to investors
He walked free having already spent a year behind bars at Rikers.
Since coming out of prison in autumn 2017, Melngailis has been keeping a low profile, sharing glimpses of her life on Instagram and on her blog.
In 2019, she said she wanted to get her brand back, but had no plans as to how to make this a reality.
She has not posted on the blog since, but remains active on Instagram, sharing pictures of her dog and of her daily life. She’s worked with Netflix on Bad vegan, which will be released in March to tell her story.
In the Netflix docu-series, a woman is seen asking what a ‘meat suit’ is, teasing the question will be answered in the programme
The blonde beauty claims she was charmed by Strangis and coerced into committing the crimes
Strangis promised Melngailis he could make her beloved dog Leon, left, immortal, and would help expand her food empire
In January 2015, 60 staff members said they weren’t being paid and subsequently staged multiple walk outs and protests, asking Melngailis to pay their wage. The successful author, right, was nowhere to be seen
Strangis made the bizarre claims he could make Melngailis’ rescue dog Leon immortal. The dog is still alive today