Vegan restaurateur-turned-fugitive Sarma Melngailis has opened up about how her scammer ex-husband Anthony Strangis gained her trust by interacting with Alec Baldwin on Twitter, leading her to think they were friends.
Melngailis, 49, detailed the downfall of her celebrity-loved restaurant Pure Food and Wine following her relationship with Strangis in the new Netflix docuseries Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives, which chronicled how they swindled nearly $2 million from investors and stiffed employees before going on the run.
Baldwin, 63, was friendly with the chef at the height of her success and famously met his wife, Hilaria Baldwin née Thomas, at the New York eatery in 2011. Melngailis touched upon their relationship in the first episode, recalling how they had an immediate connection.
‘I met Alec Baldwin at the restaurant,’ she explained. ‘We talked a lot on the phone and via email. Sometimes when you meet somebody, and you feel like you already knew them, it kind of felt like that with him.’
Sarma Melngailis, 49, (left) claimed that her scammer ex-husband Anthony Strangis gained her trust by interacting with Alec Baldwin (right) on Twitter
The vegan chef detailed the downfall of her restaurant Pure Food and Wine following her relationship with Strangis in the new Netflix documentary Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives
They disappeared with nearly $2 million of her restaurants money in 2015. They were caught a year later after Strangis ordered Domino’s using his real name, and they both served jail time
In 2010, Melngailis accompanied Baldwin to a staged reading of ‘Moby Dick’ in the Hamptons, Vanity Fair reported in 2016. While their relationship remained platonic, journalist Allen Salkin felt the actor had a romantic interest in her.
‘My understanding of her relationship with Alec Baldwin is that he was a regular customer at the restaurant, and that, like a lot of the gentlemen who went there, he had a bit of a crush on Sarma,’ he said in the documentary.
‘When Alec was talking to her about wanting to have somebody important in his life, she would, instead of offering herself as that potential person, um, suggest that maybe he should adopt a dog.’
Melngailis was sending links to Baldwin about adopting a dog when ended up rescuing a pit bull named Quinn from a shelter in Brooklyn, renaming him Leon. (Strangis would later use her love for her dog against her, bizarrely promising that he could make Leon immortal.)
The former Pure Food and Wine owner admitted in the docuseries that she had ‘a little bit of regret’ that she never pursued a relationship with Baldwin before he fell for Hilaria.
‘I had never gone any further with Alec because I was in a relationship,’ she explained. ‘And then it was like a few months later, we split up anyway, and then Alec ends up with somebody.’
Melngailis had co-founded Pure Food and Wine with chef and her then-boyfriend Matthew Kenney (second from left) in 2004, attracting a number of A-list fans, including Woody Harrelson (far left) and Jason Lewis (far right)
The New York restaurant was a night life hotspot that was beloved for its raw food vegan recipes
Melngailis was also put off by their 14-year age difference, but then Baldwin went on to marry someone who was 26 years his junior.
‘I had always kind of felt like, you know, he’s a lot older than I am,’ she said. ‘But then he ends up with somebody who’s like way younger than me.’
Hilaria, who married Baldwin in 2012, opened up about their first meeting that same year, saying the actor had approached her and given her his card.
‘I was standing near the door [of Pure Food and Wine restaurant] with my friends when he walked up and took my hand and said, “I must know you,”‘ she told Us Weekly.
Baldwin also reflected on the moment he first laid eyes on his wife in a heartfelt Instagram post in 2019.
‘8 years ago, I wandered into Pure Food and Wine on Irving Place, on an unseasonably warm February evening. My friend, @bocartist and I sat down (outside!) and as I turned to my left I saw a woman who would change my life. Entirely. 8 years today. Thanks for all you’ve given me. You are a gift,’ he captioned a picture of himself kissing his wife.
Melngailis met Baldwin at the restaurant, and they became fast friends. Journalist Allen Salkin claimed the actor had a ‘crush’ on the vegan chef
In the documentary Salkin said Baldwin would talk to her about wanting to have someone important in his life, and she suggested he get a dog
While Baldwin resisted, she ended up rescuing her beloved pit bull, Leon (pictured). It was later claimed that Strangis convinced her he could make her dog immortal
Oddly enough, it was through the Baldwins’ that Melngailis allegedly became acquainted with Strangis, who used the aliases Shane Fox, Chris Donovan, Michael Caledonia, and Will Richards.
According to the Vanity Fair article, Baldwin had been interacting with someone with the Twitter handle @DiscipleOfTodd when he set up an account for Hilaria on the social media platform. The stranger became her first follower.
‘At the beginning it seemed like this fun thing,” Hilaria told Vanity Fair at the time ‘[@DiscipleOfTodd] seemed nice. He used to make us laugh.’
Melngailis also started following @DiscipleOfTodd, who used various names, including Mr. Fox and Mr. LongBottom, and was soon smitten.
‘Mrs Fox be in love with Mr Fox. Can’t be helped,’ she tweeted on November 12, 2011.
Melngailis’s lawyers alleged at the time that Mr. Fox was Strangis, speculating that he was trying to infiltrate Baldwin’s social circle to find a target. Strangis’s attorney denied these claims, saying his client never used these Twitter handles or aliases.
Baldwin, 63, famously met his wife, Hilaria Baldwin née Thomas (pictured), at Pure Food and Wine in 2011. Melngailis admitted in the documentary to having ‘a little bit of regret’ that she didn’t pursue a relationship with the actor
On this week’s episode of the ‘A Little Bit Culty’ podcast, Melngailis said she had connected with Strangis on Twitter in 2011 because of his back and forths with Baldwin on the platform
She explained that she naively trusted Strangis because she wrongly assuming that they he and Baldwin were ‘actually friends’
On this week’s episode of the ‘A Little Bit Culty’ podcast, Melngailis said she had connected with Strangis on Twitter in 2011 and naively trusted him because of his interactions with Baldwin.
How Sarma Melngailis went from ‘plant food Queen’ to ‘Vegan Bernie Madoff’
2004: Sarma Melngailis opens Pure Food and Wine in New York
2005: She opens One Lucky Duck, a juice and takeaway next to the restaurant
2011: Melngailis meets Anthony Strangis on Twitter
December 2012: Melngailis and Strangis and get married in New York
2013: She brings Strangis in as a manager at her restauration business.
January 2015: Pure Food and Wine and One Lucky Duck staff walk out en-masse due to Melngailis’s failure to pay employees for a month
Melngailis tells her staff the delay in payments is due to changing banks
February 2015: Melngailis claims in an interview the delay in wages were actually caused by the restaurant’s debts and the cost of ingredients
May 2015: Newspapers report the restaurateur has vanished with $2 million
July 2015: Staff walk out of the restaurant again, and it is permanently closed
May 2016: Melngailis and Strangis are arrested in Sevierville, Tennessee
November 2016: Melgngailis claims she was under the control of Strangis
May 2017: Melngailis pleads guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from an investor and scheming to defraud, as well as criminal tax fraud charges
June 2017: Former restaurateur is jailed for four months
May 2018: She files for divorce from Strangis
‘What he did really well is started with these exchanges on Twitter where I had been friends with Alec and Alec was sort of new to Twitter,’ she recalled. ‘I noticed he was sort of bantering back and forth with this guy on Twitter, and I sort of somehow in my brain just thought that like they were actually friends.’
Melngailis said it ‘just gave him some sort of validity’ in her eyes, noting that this is something con artists do.
‘There’s a Wall Street term for that where investors will fraudulently kind of give themselves validity by associating themselves with somebody who has validity. He did that,’ she explained.
Melngailis shared that they ‘started chatting back and forth,’ and their relationship ‘developed from there.’ She described herself as being ‘heartbroken’ and vulnerable while also struggling with personal debt when he came into her life.
She had co-founded Pure Food and Wine with chef and her then-boyfriend Matthew Kenney in 2004, attracting a number of A-list fans, including Chelsea Clinton, Tom Brady, Owen Wilson, and Woody Harrelson.
After her personal and professional split from Kenney, she took control of the entire company and its $2 million debt with the help of investor Jeffrey Chodorow.
She also opened One Lucky Duck, a vegan juice bar and takeaway, next door to her raw food restaurant and published two vegan cookbooks.
Despite her success, she said she was struggling with loneliness and Strangis preyed on her openness. His alleged psychological abuse was slow to start, according to the former chef, who said: ‘It’s not like he came at me with all these crazy promises and stories.’
Melngailis married Strangis in December 2012, the same year the Baldwins tied the knot.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding their marriage have led to speculation that there might have been some blackmail involved.
The relationship surprised many, with even Strangis’s own stepmother wondering what the successful, attractive businesswoman saw in her son, who was overweight and an alleged gambling addict.
Melngailis brought him on board as a manager at the restaurant in 2013.
She claimed that Strangis conned her into funneling her restaurant’s funds to him by promising to expand her food empire and also make her beloved dog immortal.
Melngailis married Strangis in December 2012, the same year the Baldwins tied the knot. She made him a manager at her restaurant the following year
Baldwin reflected on the moment he first laid eyes on his wife at Pure Food and Wine in a heartfelt Instagram post in 2019
The Baldwins have gone on to have six children together since they met in 2011
The chef said Strangis would warn her that if she did not pass certain tests to prove her loyalty, such as giving him money or performing oral sex while blindfolded, forces controlled by his brother would ‘gut’ him and come for her.
Strangis had gained weight since they met and dealing with his obesity was allegedly also another test.
In the Vanity Fair article, a source close to the former restaurateur claimed that Strangis resorted to cult-like techniques such as gaslighting, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation to control her.
The same source added that Strangis convinced Melngailis her computer had been hacked in order to get her passwords for all her devices, including e-mails, phone, and bank accounts.
He also allegedly told her that her beloved pit bull Leon had been his dog in a previous life and the three of them had all been living together for a thousand years.
Melngailis believed that if she did what her husband told her, ‘Leon would also be immortal and safe to be by my side for eternity,’ Vanity Fair reported.
Melngailis (pictured with fellow restaurateur Tobyn Britt in 2009) transferred more than $1.6 million from the business accounts to her personal bank account from 2014 to 2015
The cookbook author claimed that Strangis conned her into funneling her restaurant’s funds to him by promising to expand her food empire and also make her dog immortal
Trouble began at the restaurant at the start of 2015 when 60 staff members said they weren’t being paid and subsequently staged multiple walkouts and protests
The novelist Porochista Khakpour, who was a close friend of Melngailis, told the magazine: ‘Sarma lost her mind. She really believed that her dog would live forever.’
Strangis refuted the claims through his lawyer at the time.
From January 2014 to January 2015, Melngailis transferred more than $1.6 million from the business accounts to her personal bank account.
Trouble began at the restaurant at the start of 2015 when 60 staff members said they weren’t being paid and subsequently staged multiple walkouts and protests.
Melngailis explained to staff the delay in payment was due to changing banks, but she told a magazine that same month it was because of the restaurant’s debts and the high cost of premium ingredients.
In May 2015, she and Strangis disappeared with the money and the restaurant closed permanently in July of that year.
They were caught by authorities on May 12, 2016, after Strangis used his real name to order a non-vegan cheese pizza and buffalo wings from Domino’s to their hotel room in Sevierville, Tennessee.
In 2015, Melngailis and Strangis disappeared and spent a year on the run. After her arrest, she pled guilty to stealing from an investor, scheming to defraud, and criminal tax fraud charges
Melngailis was sentenced to four months in New York’s notorious Rikers prison. As part of her punishment, she was also ordered to repay $1.5million in restitution payments.
In May 2017, Melngailis pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from an investor and scheming to defraud, as well as criminal tax fraud charges.
She was sentenced to four months in New York’s notorious Rikers prison. As part of her punishment, she was also ordered to repay $1.5million in restitution payments.
Strangis pleaded guilty to four counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree. He was sentenced to one year in jail and five years probation and had to repay $840,000 to investors
He walked free having already spent a year behind bars at Rikers.
Since coming out of prison in autumn 2017, Melngailis has been keeping a low profile, sharing glimpses of her life on Instagram and on her blog.
Melngailis filed for divorce from Strangis in May 2018, and a year later, she said she wanted to get her brand back, but had no plans as to how to make this a reality.
She has not posted on the blog since, but remains active on Instagram, sharing pictures of her dog and of her daily life. She also worked with Netflix on Bad Vegan.