The Downfall of New York’s Hottest Vegan
By Dana Schuster and Georgett Roberts
May 22, 2016
The New York Post
Sarma Melngailis had it all: an Ivy League degree, model looks and a hot vegan restaurant, Pure Food and Wine in Gramercy, beloved by Alec Baldwin and Bill Clinton.
Now, she’s got a mug shot, a $350,000 bail and husband Anthony Strangis: an alleged gambling addict with a criminal past and an 11-year-old child he hasn’t seen in over a decade.
“It’s the worst nightmare you can think of,” Melngailis revealed to The Post in an exclusive jailhouse interview Saturday morning at Rikers. “If I had terminal cancer, it would be better than this, because at least [then] I did not cause it.”
For the past 10 months, Melngailis and Strangis had been on the lam after allegedly stealing nearly $2 million from her trendy “raw organic” restaurant — blowing $1.2 million at Connecticut casinos. The 43-year-old restaurateur and Strangis, 35, were arrested last week at a $99-a-night Fairfield Inn & Suites in Sevierville, Tenn., after a delivery of unorganic Domino’s outed them.
Sevierville Detective Kevin Bush tells The Post: “I have excellent intelligence that [Strangis] ordered the pizza and wings.” Melngailis insists that it was Strangis who placed the fateful order, and maintains she is still a devout vegan.
On Thursday, nearly two dozen disgruntled former Pure employees swarmed Brooklyn Criminal Court to watch Melngailis get locked away. (Strangis will be arraigned at a future date.) The couple is charged with 24 counts of theft, labor fraud and tax crime charges. They face up to 15 years in prison for failing to pay the nearly $1 million Melngailis owed to employees and investors of Pure Food and Wine and One Lucky Duck, her mail-order snack business, as well as $400,000 in taxes.
“She’s the vegan Bernie Madoff,” says Benjamin Dictor, attorney for a group of ex-Pure workers. According to the indictment, 84 of them are owed a collective $40,000.
“I love my workers,” pleads a gray jumpsuit-clad Melngailis from her cell. “When I come out, I will find something to do and pay it back.”
How Melngailis went from culinary darling to convict has her friends, family and colleagues scratching their heads. But one thing is certain — things took a turn when Strangis entered her world circa 2013.
“Things were going well when I was single,” admits Melngailis, though she wouldn’t cite Strangis’ involvement in her downfall.
Those close to Melngailis say she first hid her relationship with the 275-pound, 6-foot-2 Strangis, a convict from Fairhaven, Mass., with arrests for grand theft and for impersonating a police officer, both in 2005. According to multiple sources, she finally introduced him as Shane Fox. Prosecutors say she had Strangis pose for potential investors as a wealthy man named Michael Caledonia to help drum up funds.
Even her family doesn’t know when the duo got married — or if it is, indeed, a legal union.
Until 2010, Strangis was still hitched to Stacy Strangis, 44, whom he wed in 2003. She had to publish a notice of action for dissolution of marriage in various newspapers since her husband ditched her when their son, Riley, was 8 months old.
“I’ve never heard from him again,” Stacy tells The Post from her Palmetto, Fla., home.
“When I met him, he said he was a retired Navy SEAL and [had been] shot in the line of action in the chest. I would always see what I thought were bandages [on] his chest,” Stacy adds. “Come to find out, he was just taping his man boobs down.
“He’s a sociopath. I feel bad for [Melngailis].”
Melngailis’ current predicament is a far cry from her spotless résumé: After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania she had a series of finance jobs before enrolling at the French Culinary Institute. She opened her first restaurant, Commissary, in 2001 with then-boyfriend chef Matthew Kenney, going on to consult for Jeffrey Chodorow’s China Grill Management.
When she founded Pure Food and Wine in 2004, the restaurant was her life — and the staff, her family.
“She was lonely, because she was obsessed. She worked constantly. Sometimes she would even sleep at the restaurant,” says Benito Borjas-Fitzpatrick, a server and bartender at Pure from 2004 to 2008. He adds that she gave him $3,000 in 2009 for his mother’s funeral.
Novelist and Melngailis pal Porochista Khakpour says the restaurateur’s generosity extended to other friends as well: “She let me eat [at Pure] for free when I was a struggling writer.” The vegan guru even threw her a $35,000 book party in 2007.
When Melngailis and Kenney split a year post-launch, she bought out his stake.
Eight years later, in 2013, prosecutors say Melngailis brought on Strangis (a k a Shane Fox) as a manager. (One worker speculated they had met on Twitter.) Employees immediately noticed a change in their boss.
After Strangis came on the scene, “[Melngailis] would go on more trips. [She] definitely became more elusive, less concerned with the well-being of the company,” says a line cook who worked at the Irving Place spot from 2009 to 2013. As Strangis’ presence grew more prominent by the summer of 2014, so did the staff’s wariness. “He had an air of an Italian-style gangster . . . walking with a big gait and speaking in a cryptic fashion about money,” says Schubmehl.
A former director of operations at Pure Food and Wine alleges Strangis and Melngailis stole with a vengeance.
“There’d be times when I’d come in on a Monday and get a text or call from [Strangis], ‘Don’t deposit the money. You have to meet me here with the money,’ ” recalls the director. “I wouldn’t meet him at the company bank. I’d meet him at the CitiBank, where he had a personal account.”
He adds: “Every day, the [Pure] bank account would be cleared to zero dollars.
“When I first started working there, the bank account had a few hundred thousand dollars and [Melngailis would] take out $50K here and there, and $20K here and there — and then it went to 70 [thousand and then] 100 [thousand].”
Though Melngailis refused to reveal what happened to the disappearing funds, she laughed at the notion that she was fueling her husband’s gambling addiction. “I hate gambling, it’s preying on the vulnerable.”
In August 2014, after winning more than $160,000 at Foxwoods casino in Mashantucket, Conn., Strangis was arrested — with a $25,000 bond — presumably for the parole violation of crossing state lines. He was still on probation for his 2005 Sarasota County, Fla., grand theft charges stemming from the sale of his father’s Jaguar to a man for $20,000, according to his ex, Stacy. “Even as a teenager he wanted to live that millionaire type of lifestyle but didn’t want to put any work into doing [it],” says Strangis’ half brother, John Strangis, of Brockton, Mass.
Despite the duo’s high living — including more than $70,000 in hotel bills throughout Europe and NYC — Melngailis failed to make payroll five times in 2014. Pure temporarily closed in January 2015 after she went AWOL.
When she resurfaced in February, Melngailis — who grew up in Newton, Mass. — spun various tales about where the money had gone, telling some employees it went to care for her sick mother, others that the deficit was the result of switching banks.
But her former director of operations says it was all a sham: “[Melngailis and Strangis] didn’t have financial troubles. They took all the money!”
Somehow, Melngailis convinced a few patrons to pony up $844,000, and the restaurant reopened in April 2015.
While Strangis was still in the picture, employees say he and Melngailis never seemed particularly enamored.
In fact, Sevierville Detective Bush says the outlaws were staying in two separate rooms during their 40-day occupancy at the Tennessee hotel.
“She’s not fond of him. We could tell that,” says Bush. “Right before they were taken to our detention facility I said to [Melngailis], ‘Give [Strangis] a hug. Give him a kiss,’ and she didn’t want to.” (Melngailis would not address why the couple was staying in separate rooms.)
Strangis’s lawyer, Samuel Karliner, told The Post, “His wife was running the operation, and everything was rosy . . . Life was grand, and he didn’t know [otherwise] when the business was going south but the lifestyle continued.”
On Thursday, Strangis told the judge via his defense attorney that “it would appear Mrs. Melngailis was the one who ran this business and drove it into the ground and withdrew all the money.”
When asked if she is mad at her husband for placing the blame on her, Melngailis responded: “That word is the biggest understatement.” She repeatedly claims that she was “not in control” of her actions, and that it was not her decision to flee to Tennessee.
“I worked hard, this was my passion. This was all I ever wanted. Why would I throw it up in flames? I have nothing now. I have no apartment. I have no money. Why would I torture myself like that? Talk to my friends. They will tell you this is not me.”
While it’s inarguable that Melngailis got wrapped up with the wrong guy, those “friends” say her carefully cultivated public persona hid some deeper demons.
Her ex-boyfriend Kenney told Page Six in 2005 that Melngailis physically attacked him on multiple occasions.
“She’s thrown stools, grapefruits and phones at me,” the chef said. “She would leave cryptic notes with big kitchen knives stuck into vegetables. She punched me in the head and cut me with her ring.” (Melngailis denied the claims at the time. Kenney declined to speak to The Post for this story.)
And Khakpour tells The Post that the stress of having such a healthy image weighed on Melngailis, who confessed that she’s struggled with bulimia since opening Pure Food and Wine.
“There was nobody in the restaurant industry who looked like Sarma. She looked like a celebrity,” says Khakpour. “She became aware that it was part of the allure of the place.”
Melngailis now sits in Rikers as she awaits trial. Though she’s hopeful about making bail, she says that she doesn’t want to burden anybody — but prison has already taken a toll on the health-conscious blonde, who has lost 4 pounds since being captured.
“I cry every day,” she says, though she admits the conditions at Rikers are better than Tennessee. There, she was held in a cell with no windows and was forced to sleep on the floor. She educated the other inmates about veganism and healthy eating.
When Melngailis asked for a vegan diet at Rikers, her request was denied. She says she makes do with peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, apples and fresh-sliced cucumber.
Melngailis’ lawyer, Sheila Tendy, tells The Post, “We really just ask that the public reserves judgment until we figure out what’s going on.”
One thing’s for sure: The raw-loving Melngailis and Strangis are cooked.