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The wild story behind ‘Bad Vegan’, the shocking new Netflix documentary

Netflix is currently basking in the glory of its true-crime success. From Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler to Worst Roommate Ever and Catching Killers, the streaming service has left its mark in the landscape of true-crime literature with its wild and scathing documentaries, films and series. Its latest addition to the true-crime shelves, Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives., is an innovative product from the executive producer of Tiger King and the director of Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened, Chris Smith. Equally bizarre and wild, this four-episode series has shocked viewers who cannot stop talking about it. 

The show tells the real-life story of a celebrity restauranteur and vegan restaurant owner from New York whose life fell apart after she got involved with a bizarre conman. Sarma Melngailis was the vegan cuisine mogul whose raw vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine became an instant sensation ever since its inception in 2004. 

The restaurant promised a “high end, fine dining vegan experience” and became a regular hangout zone for celebs like Bill Clinton, Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Alec Baldwin. Melngailis lived the dream life and managed her massive empire when she met Shane Fox, who drove her to the brink of collapse. 

A seasoned conman, Fox met Melngailis over Twitter in 2011 and made hyperbolic false promises, including one where he promised to make her beloved Pitbull, Leon immortal, if she gave him money and caved in to his demands. However, this high-functioning scam scheme abruptly stopped with a pizza delivery blip. 

With his real name being Anthony Strangis, he posed as Shane Fox, who reportedly had unbridled, godlike powers. He compelled her to perform tests and convinced her of his authenticity. After getting married in 2012, they became fugitives after laundering nearly $2 million from the restaurant and the staff members. Most of the money went directly to Strangis, who forced Melngailis to comply or risk losing everything. She had to transfer nearly $1.6 million from her business bank accounts to the personal ones from where her husband spent almost $1.2 million in casinos in Connecticut. 

Employees and workers unionised and walked out of the restaurant in 2015. They protested against the vehement violation of labour laws and fraud as they were not paid wages for a long time. This mass outrage prompted the cops to try hard to find the couple who had seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. However, a slight error on Fox’s part while ordering a Domino’s pizza led to their capture in 2016 when he mistakenly revealed his real name. 

Charged with larceny, tax fraud, defraud, violation of labour, and other crimes, they pleaded guilty to their charges. Melngailis was jailed for four months and then sent on five years probation, while Strangis was jailed for a year with five years of probation. He had to pay $840k in restitution. 

The four-part docuseries delves deeper into the case and contains footage and interviews with those involved, including Melngailis herself. The other interviews include journalist and food critic Allen Salkin and restauranteur Jeffrey Chodorow who invested in the vegan restaurant.  

Bad Vegan was released on Netflix on March 16th, 2022.