The Food Order That Led To Bad Vegan Sarma Melngailis' Arrest

Sarma Melngailis launched one of New York City's hottest restaurants, Pure Food and Wine, in 2004, per Forbes. The place was a mecca for celebrities, such as Woody Harrelson and Alec Baldwin, who came to enjoy raw vegan dishes. More than a decade later, she would be taken down by a much different type of cuisine. And the delivery order wasn't even hers.

On the surface, Melngailis seemed like a savvy businessperson. She came to the restaurant industry with an impressive set of credentials. She had received two degrees in Economics from University of Pennsylvania in 1994 — one from The Wharton School and one from the College of Arts and Sciences, per her official site. Melngailis went on to work in finance for such well-known firms as Bain Capital and Bear Stearns for several years before she decided that big business wasn't for her.

Making a dramatic career shift, she enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. Melngailis earned her culinary degree and started a new chapter in her life. In 2001, she launched her first restaurant, Commissary, with her then-boyfriend (via the Daily Mail). But it was another restaurant with another boyfriend that contributed to her greatest success in the food industry.  

Melngailis' restaurant triumph

Melngailis started Pure Food and Wine with boyfriend Matthew Kenney (above) in 2004 (via Forbes). The restaurant broke new ground in the food world, offering upscale raw vegan food in a fine dining environment. The couple co-wrote the 2005 cookbook "Raw Food/Real World," in which they shared "100 Recipes to Get the Glow" from following a raw vegan diet. Melngailis and Kenney broke up around this time, and Melngailis ran Pure Food and Wine on her own after the split. The restaurant proved to be hugely popular, attracting all sorts of media attention and the patronage of such celebrities as actress Daryl Hannah. According to Vanity Fair, Pure Food and Wine brought $7 million in revenue and made a $500,000 profit. Melngailis eventually grew her vegan empire to include several juice bars and a food product line. 

Melngailis thought she met someone interesting through Twitter in 2011, and she eventually started a real-life romance with Anthony Strangis (via Vanity Fair). They were an unusual pair, as Strangis preferred junk food to raw food and Melngailis had been building a vegan food empire. This odd couple married in 2012, and she eventually brought him into her business. That's when the trouble really started. 

Melngailis and husband took millions

Strangis reportedly diverted cash deposits from the restaurant for his own use, according to Vanity Fair. The couple also took funds from the business to support a lavish lifestyle, spending $70,000 on trips to Europe and $10,000 on Uber rides (via Forbes). But the biggest chunk of change went to covering gambling debts at two Connecticut casinos — a whopping $1.2 million. According to Vanity Fair, they reportedly took roughly $2 million in total.

With all of this cash coming out of Melngailis' business, it was only a matter of time before disaster struck. The restaurant stopped paying its employees in early 2015. It closed its doors that July, and Melngailis and Strangis soon found themselves in legal trouble with investors, employees, and tax officials. Strangis was a gambler with criminal background, but Melngailis was a savvy businessperson. Many wondered why she would have participated in stealing the money. She later claimed that Strangis had broken her down mentally through a form of domestic abuse known as coercive control (via Vanity Fair).

Melngailis discovered by a delivery order

Rather than face the music, Melngailis and Strangis went on the run. They had been successfully hiding from the law for months before the fateful food order. They had been staying in a hotel in Tennessee for 40 days when Strangis had a craving that led to their capture, per Vanity Fair. He ordered a pizza, with a side of chicken wings, using his real name. His need for a cheesy slice brought the authorities right to the door of the room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Pigeon Forge in May 2016. Melngailis' dog, Leon, started barking when the police approached.

It turned out that the pizza delivery had just been for Strangis. Melngailis, even on the lam, had stuck to her vegan beliefs, living off vegan bowls from Chipotle. The couple was brought to Sevier County Jail, where they remained for several days. No word on what the dining options were there. Melngailis was moved to New York's Rikers Island jail. She was indicted on 24 counts related to unpaid taxes and wages and fraud, according to CBS News. In May 2017, Melngailis reached a plea deal with authorities. She was incarcerated for four months, followed by five years of probation.