After opening in 2004, Pure Food and Wine was an exclusive restaurant serving raw vegan food, becoming a celebrity hotspot over the next few years. Sarma Melngailis, who was the restaurant’s co-founder, made a name for herself in the culinary industry at the time.
However, by 2015, the restaurant and some of Sarma’s other business ventures were struggling, with Sarma seemingly away from the country. Netflix’s ‘Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.’ dives deep into what happened during that time and how she ended up on the run from the authorities. So, let’s find out where she might be today then, shall we?
What Happened to Sarma Melngailis?
Sarma grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and initially got her economics degree from Wharton School in Pennsylvania. After working in a couple of investment firms, she decided to pursue her dream of working in the food industry. In 1999, Sarma graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York. In 2004, she opened Pure Food and Wine in Manhattan, New York, with Matthew Kenney, a celebrated chef and her then-boyfriend.
However, Matthew left the restaurant in 2005 while Sarma continued to run the business. As per the show, Matthew sold his share of Pure Food and Wine to Sarma. The restaurant thrived over the next few years, and she started One Lucky Duck, a raw vegan juice bar and takeaway, in New York City, New York. However, by 2015, the restaurant was closed down after employees forced a walkout; they hadn’t been paid since December 26, 2014.
Sarma had been away from the United States during that time, traveling in Europe instead. At the time, the employees weren’t sure why she wasn’t present; the only explanation they got from the lack of pay was Sarma blaming it on changing banks. In an interview from February 2015, she said, “What a lot of people and even the staff don’t know is that the restaurant has a very complicated history, and from day one has had an enormous amount of debt on the books. People from the outside see a busy restaurant, and they assume I must live in a huge penthouse…and it could not be more opposite. There are plenty of times I have not been paying my own rent to make payroll.”
Sarma explained at the time that she was looking into solutions to fix the finances when her employees walked out. Back then, she had been married to Anthony Strangis since around December 2012 after meeting him on Twitter sometime before. After a series of bizarre events, Sarma and Anthony were arrested in May 2016 in Sevierville, Tennessee, after spending close to a year on the run. The story that made the rounds after shocked many who closely followed the case.
The authorities believed that Sarma transferred close to $1.6 million from the business to her personal bank account, and Anthony spent over $1 million of that money in casinos in Connecticut. Apart from that, the couple had used $80,000 for luxury watches, $70,000 for travels across Europe, and owed $40,000 to employees. The prosecution accused Sarma of stealing from investors and failing to pay taxes.
Sarma’s defense then claimed that she was controlled and coerced into doing things by Anthony. In messages exchanged between the two in the past, Sarma accused Anthony of raping her and called him a manipulative liar. He told her that the money she kept sending him was part of a series of tests. If Sarma were to pass, her debt would go away, and she and her pet dog, Leon, would become immortal. The defense planned to argue that Anthony was abusive and controlled Sarma.
While many questioned how Sarma could fall for such claims, her defense contended that she was “depressed and untrusting of her own inner reality.” In May 2017, Sarma pled guilty to grand larceny, tax fraud, and conspiring to defraud. Then about 44 years old, she received a four-month prison sentence followed by a five-year probation period. On October 6, 2017, Sarma was released from the Rikers Island Prison in New York. In May 2018, she filed for divorce from Anthony.
Where is Sarma Melngailis Today?
Despite how things went down, Sarma still harbored hopes of reopening her restaurant and making things right with her former employees and investors. Since her release, Sarma has continued to live in New York City, sharing a home with her dog, Leon, and a friend. She is pretty active on social media, posting pictures of Leon regularly. As of February 2022, Sarma also had a podcast in the works, though it’s unclear when it will be released.
After her release, Sarma was open about her experiences and shortcomings. Despite the initial jolt of happiness and relief upon her release, she talked about dealing with a whirlwind of other emotions. Sarma said, “I’m humiliated, and still somewhat confused, along with sad, angry, and more. The debts for which I’m responsible are so big they feel surreal.” Sarma also plans to write about what happened and hopes that it will help others. In a 2019 interview, she talked about leaving New York City to work on her memoir.
Sarma went into detail about her guilt after the release and how she believed she unintentionally hurt people. For now, the former restaurateur is working toward fixing things in her life and is aiming to pay her debts back. While in prison, Sarma received many letters from her supporters and well-wishers, as well as books to read. As seen on her social media, she has continued to be a bookworm after her release.
Read More: Where is Anthony Strangis Now?