Penn Grad Accused of Being “The Vegan Bernie Madoff”

Sarma Melngailis, who graduated from Penn in 1994, is accused of stealing millions from her vegan restaurant — and implicated in ordering a cheesy pizza.

Sarma Melngailis in a Tuesday, October 18, 2011, file photo.

Sarma Melngailis in front of Pure Food and Wine with her restaurant’s most popular dish — a local heirloom tomato lasagna featuring basil pistachio pesto, sun-dried tomato marinara, macadamia pumpkin seed ricotta and zucchini —  in an October 18, 2011, file photo.

Sarma Melngailis was born in Massachusetts, and her grades were good enough to get her into the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1994 — with a dual Wharton/College degree. Like many Penn graduates, she moved to New York and went into finance. In the booming 1990s, she worked at Bear Sterns, then moved to Boston to work at Bain Capital.

She shifted careers in the late ’90s, however, graduating from the French Culinary Institute and eventually becoming an advocate for the vegan lifestyle. She opened Pure Food & Wine in 2004, New York City’s first restaurant to serve “gourmet renditions of organic, vegan [and] raw food.” Though the restaurant had its critics — “I’ve certainly taken some criticism from raw-food purists,” she told the Village Voice — it was popular, and Melngailis seemed to be doing well.

Then things changed. The staff walked out en masse in January of last year over unpaid wages, with Melngailis offering various explanations for the paycheck delay. The restaurant — along with a companion business, One Lucky Duck — re-opened, but workers walked out again last summer due to unpaid wages.

Then, Melngailis disappeared. Or, she disappeared until she and husband Anthony Strangis were caught by authorities in Tennessee — after they’d ordered a Domino’s Pizza. The horror!

Melngailis and Strangis are accused of stealing more than $2 million from the restaurant, and gambling away $1.2 million of it at Connecticut casinos. They face up to 15 years in prison.

Yesterday’s New York Post contained a jailhouse interview with Melngailis, which features some incredible quotes. A sampling:

  • Melngailis, on her plight: “If I had terminal cancer, it would be better than this, because at least [then] I did not cause it.”
  • The Post, on the Domino’s delivery: “Melngailis insists that it was Strangis who placed the fateful order, and maintains she is still a devout vegan.”
  • A lawyer for a group of ex-workers: “She’s the vegan Bernie Madoff.”
  • Anthony Strangis’ ex-wife, Stacy: “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. Come to find out, he was just taping his man boobs down.”
  • Melngailis, on gambling: “I hate gambling, it’s preying on the vulnerable.”
  • Sevierville Detective Kevin 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.”
  • Ex-boyfriend Matthew Kenney, to the Post in 2005: “She’s thrown stools, grapefruits and phones at me. She would leave cryptic notes with big kitchen knives stuck into vegetables. She punched me in the head and cut me with her ring.”
  • The Post, again: “She educated the other inmates about veganism and healthy eating. When Melngailis asked for a vegan diet at Rikers, her request was denied.”

Melngailis’ next hearing is not yet scheduled. Former employees showed up at the courthouse to witness her bail hearing. One worker “thought it was hilarious that she was undone by a take-out pizza.”

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