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The new Netflix true crime hit Bad Vegan follows the downfall one of NYC's most beloved eateries. The docuseries shows how Sarma Melngailis, owner of the vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine and the related raw-vegan-products brand One Lucky Duck, met and married Anthony Strangis, a scammer who Melngailis alleges coerced her into stealing money from her own business and later going on the run from authorities. The duo were ultimately charged with transferring more than $1.6 million from the restaurant into personal accounts.
In the four-part doc, the sensational tale behind Pure Food and Wine's downfall is told by Melngailis herself, as well as by several former employees. Both the former owner and workers have described the restaurant before Strangis as a special place to work, with fans now wondering if the eatery could make a comeback. Here's everything we know about the famous vegan café.
Pure Food and Wine had loyal employees and a celeb clientele.
The raw vegan restaurant Pure Food And Wine was founded in 2004 as a collaboration between Melngailis and her boyfriend at the time, chef Matthew Kenney, with funding from restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. In 2005, Melngailis bought out Kenney's stake and ran it herself, with the Gramercy eatery building a loyal clientele, including celebs like Anne Hathaway, Owen Wilson, and recurring Bad Vegan namedrop Alec Baldwin, who met his wife Hilaria at the restaurant in 2011.
Per Grub Street (opens in new tab), the restaurant became known as "vegan-glamorous," at a time before Impossible Burgers and plant-based everything. Some of their popular offerings included spicy Thai lettuce wraps, zebra tomato-and-zucchini lasagna with pistachio-basil pesto, and a Master Cleanse Tini (organic sake with lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper). There was also intense loyalty among employees when Melngailis was at the helm, with some workers recalling in the docuseries that they used to call her Sar-mama.
Melngailis later expanded to a brand called One Lucky Duck.
Melngailis had begun building an empire by the time she met Strangis. She had written two cookbooks, Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow (co-written with Kenney) in 2005, and Living Raw Food: Get the Glow with More Recipes from Pure Food and Wine in 2009. She also opened a trio of juice and takeaway bars called One Lucky Duck, with a logo of a duck that she also tattooed on her arm.
Staff ended up protesting after Melngailis didn't meet payroll.
When the restauranteur met Strangis in 2011, Pure Food and Wine was profitable, though she still had a substantial loan with Chodorow. Then she began giving the scammer money and undergoing the "cosmic endurance tests" depicted in Bad Vegan. Strangis also started immeshing himself in the eatery's day-to-day operations, per the documentary, to the alarm of the staff.
Melngailis and Strangis began failing to meet payroll in 2014, with workers missing checks five times that year, per New York Post (opens in new tab). Pure Food and Wine closed temporarily in the winter of 2015, after servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff walked out, protesting the lack of pay. After opening again for a short time, with a round of new investors, the restaurant closed permanently in the spring of 2016.
Melngailis ended up pleading guilty to stealing $1 million from the restaurant. In addition to stiffed investors, Melngailis owed roughly $63,000 to employees, per Vanity Fair (opens in new tab). The former owner used money she was paid for Bad Vegan towards back pay, with the outlet confirming that the restitution was received and most of it was paid out.
“In exchange for my agreeing to turn over materials and images to the documentary makers, in March of 2020 a payment went directly to an attorney on my behalf, bypassing me entirely, who then paid in full the outstanding judgment that was owed to the employees who’d not been paid after my disappearance in 2015,” she said. “It was a huge relief to get my former staff paid, and I’d have wanted to pay it regardless of whether it was in the form of a judgment or not.”
NYC fans will get a chance to try meals for the original Pure Food and Wine menu.
Though the possibility of a future restaurant run by Melngailis is still up in the air, fans of Bad Vegan will have the chance to try food by two former Pure Food and Wine chefs. A three-course meal from The Bad Vegan Kitchen (opens in new tab)—cooked by Chef Nikki Bennett, the former head chef, and Chef Missy Maidana, the former pastry chef—will be available for order on Postmates for one weekend only, March 25 through 27. The meals will include a Caesar salad starter, a raw lasagna main, and a Mallomar dessert, all from the restaurant's original menu and all available for free, with no delivery fees—plus a custom tote—while supplies last.
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