True crime devotees are sinking their teeth into another Netflix docu-series. This time, a vegan restaurateur’s fraud is the meat of the matter. "Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives." is a four-part docu-series following the criminal case of Sarma Melngailis, co-founder of celebrity-favorite Pure Food and Wine as well as the "it" girl of New York’s early-aughts food scene.
Warning: This post contains spoilers.
It wasn't all glamorous, though. Throughout her restaurant’s run, Melngailis drained business funds, taking out $1.6 million over several years to send to her husband, whom she eventually came to realize was a con artist. The vast amount of her embezzlement is about enough to make anyone’s eyes pop out of their skulls. Still, the motive behind Melngailis’ crimes (which includes achieving immortality for her dog Leon) is literally out-of-this world-level odd.
For heads still whirling over Melngailis’ wild run of a story, here’s everything you need to know about her, her restaurants and the mysterious internet connection that led her to go on the lam.
Melngailis is the bad vegan of Netflix’s latest true-crime series 'Bad Vegan.'
In the 2000s, Melngailis’ vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine was the toast of New York. She and her boyfriend at the time, chef Matthew Kenney, had launched the spot looking to make the then-novel diet a darling cuisine for the rich and famous. Launched in 2004, the restaurant and its spin-off (One Lucky Duck Juice & Takeaway) were high-end raw vegan eateries featuring zucchini lasagnas and lettuce wraps well before McDonald’s had even thought to turn out the McPlant burger.
According to the new Netflix series, Melngailis’ restaurant had a revolving door of celebrity clientele that included the likes of Tom Brady and Gisele, Owen Wilson and Alec Baldwin. The first episode of the series details these early days of the booming business in which Melngailis and Kenney were still together. The attractive couple whose vegan appreciation put them before cameras and between the pages of glossy magazines.
Not long after her breakup with Kenney, Anthony Strangis, aka Shane Fox, aka keeper of way too many other aliases, came into the picture.
The first episodes of the Netflix series paint a picture of Melngailis and her impressive celebrity connections, including one, Alec Baldwin. Having had a missed connection with the actor, Melngailis found herself drawn to a man named Shane Fox, who appeared to be part of the celebrity’s circle. After taking note of his connection to Baldwin on Twitter back in 2011, Melngailis began talking with Fox. Part of her attraction to him was that he was a mysterious man with a secretive and seemingly high-stakes job, the likes of Jason Bourne.
Though his emergence in Melngailis’ life drew the concern of her restaurant employees, all seemed well. Despite the everyday struggles of owning a business (Melngailis was indebted to restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow after buying out Kenney’s portion of the business), customers were coming and business was good. Plus, Strangis was making big promises, including helping Melngailis with her debt so long as she passed a series of "cosmic endurance tests."
That's right: cosmic.
The tests ultimately turned out to be all about money, however. Strangis convinced Melngailis that he was working black ops for the U.S. government (it turns out he was just a big "Call of Duty" fan) and, in doing so, got her to send him lump sums of thousands of dollars at a time.
In a matter of years, Melngailis transferred over $1.6 million from business accounts to her personal bank account so she could send Strangis money.
During that time, Melngailis married Strangis. According to the documentary, Strangis had Melngailis try on an $800,000 engagement ring at Tiffany's.
Her increasing dependency on him alarmed her staff, particularly when she stopped making payroll. After missing payroll five times in 2014, her team walked out, shutting down service in the winter of 2015 and then closed permanently that spring.
According to Melngailis, after Strangis made her believe that she could be a 'queen' of a realm outside our human world, she spent 10 months with him on the run.
In the Netflix series, Melngailis claimed to have endured all sorts of mental manipulation and abuse by Strangis. She also said she was convinced he was doing even more fascinating things than working top-secret government operations. According to her, Strangis asserted that better than being a covert agent, he was actually part of "The Family," an organization that was fighting demons in an attempt to build a new utopia.
(Insert slightly sympathetic motivation: Strangis also convinced Melngailis that her rescue pit bull Leon would become immortal.)
Their downfall was a pizza from Domino’s … that, uh, wasn’t even vegan.
In the final episode of the docuseries, Melngailis detailed how Strangis drove her across the country from her home in New York to Miami, then Las Vegas and finally Tennessee. During this time, Strangis filmed Melngailis during her struggles of coping with her ever-changing surroundings and coming to terms with the fact her husband was not who he claimed. He also filmed email exchanges with Melngailis’s mother in which he asked her for money transfers so that he could "help care for her daughter."
The two were eventually found at a hotel in Tennessee after Strangis ordered a pizza from Domino’s using his real name.
Melngailis was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to four months in jail.
According to The New York Times, Melngailis pled guilty to stealing over $200,000 from an investor. She also pled guilty to grand larceny, conspiring to defraud, and criminal tax fraud. After serving out a four-month jail sentence on Rikers Island, the disgraced restaurant owner filed for divorce from her husband in May 2018.
Though still a mortal, Leon is alive and well and with Melngailis.
According to an interview with Netflix’s site Tudum, Melngailis is still his owner and just celebrated his 12th birthday.
“Having Leon around me is extremely grounding,” she told Tudum. “If I’m worried or upset, I sometimes hold his face and look in his eyes and tell him that everything’s going to be okay, which makes me feel better.”
Melngailis says she used the money she made from 'Bad Vegan' to repay former employees.
Soon after Netflix dropped "Bad Vegan," Melngailis shared a post to her blog Sarma Raw to "clear up" a few things about the documentary. In the post, she revealed why she was paid to appear in the documentary despite typical journalistic practices which avoid paying subjects and participants.
"It’s standard practice — to say nothing of journalistic integrity — that subjects do not get paid for participation in documentaries, at least not the reputable ones," Melngailis wrote on her website Wednesday.
"In my case, however, and at my insistence, the producers made an exception so that I could pay the total amount my former employees were owed — amounts that accrued after my disappearance in 2015," she continued. "Of all the harm and the many debts resulting from my downfall, this portion weighed heaviest."
Melngailis also used the blog post to puncture the last chapter of the series finale. At the end of the episode, it's implied that she and her ex-husband are more than just in touch.
"The ending of Bad Vegan is disturbingly misleading," she asserted. "I am not in touch with Anthony Strangis and I made those recordings at a much earlier time, deliberately, for a specific reason."
On a post for Tudum, Netflix's editorial website, journalist Allen Salkin, who wrote about Melngailis, asked viewers to "reconsider" Melngailis's actions.
"Sarma, while imperfect, is rebuilding a life that would never have spiraled like it did if she’d never met that man. It’s time to reconsider Sarma’s story. This isn’t only about giving her a second chance, it’s also about giving ourselves one too," Salkin wrote.