How Domino's Pizza Led To Bad Vegan's Sarma Melngailis' Downfall

Ironically, it was an order of pizza and chicken wings from Domino's that led to the arrest of vegan food pioneer and restaurateur Sarma Melngailis. According to the opening of Episode 1 of the Netflix documentary "Bad Vegan," which chronicles Melngailis's rise and fall in the plant-based food world, Melngailis and her husband, Anthony Strangis, were apprehended by police after being on the run for months when their credit card was traced to a Domino's order delivered to a Tennessee hotel.

The pair had been accused of dodging investors and embezzling money from Melngailis' restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, enough so that employees went unpaid and walked out. Per Episode 4, police in Sevier County, Tennessee received a tip from someone in New York that the fugitives were in the area. Soon after, they discovered the pizza purchase on the credit card, which they traced from a local Domino's to the couple's hotel. "Once we had kind of informed the hotel people of what had happened, they seemed like they were very shocked that it had happened. They didn't seem like they thought that they were probably on the run," said Detective Ray Brown in the documentary.

Did Sarma Melngailis want to get caught?

In Episode 4 of "Bad Vegan," the police and hotel staff worked together to apprehend Anthony Strangis and Sarma Melngailis, with the front desk staff calling to Strangis' room and asking him to come to the lobby to discuss an issue with his credit card, at which time police arrested him. The officers then went up to Melngailis' adjoining room, where she was arrested. When approached, she initially gave the fake name she had been using, Emma Donovan. But once officers noticed Melngailis' signature "Lucky Duck" tattoo on her arm, she admitted her true identity. 

"To me, she was relieved. She sat down on the bed and started crying," said Officer Kevin Bush in the documentary. The whole scenario begs the question: Although the pizza was ordered in Strangis' name, did perhaps Melngailis order the pizza hoping to get caught? "There was no indications that she consumed that pizza, and I know she didn't. She was a vegan, but when the media outlets started calling me, they were making that a big deal," said Bush.

The press cashed in on the hypocrisy of it all

The media frenzy that followed wasn't kind to Sarma Melngailis, with many reports focusing on the irony of the fact that the runaway vegan had been caught because of a pizza and chicken wing order, something Vanity Fair writer Allen Salkin said was focused on to sensationalize the story. "If they don't have the Domino's pizza, it's not as good a story, so they don't want to let that fact go," Salkin said in Episode 4. 

While headlines about hypocrisy graced the newsstands, Pure Food and Wine's employees were more focused on finding out when they would be paid. "To me, what was significant was like millions of dollars getting blown away in a casino. Who cares if she deviated off her vegan diet? ... Who cares about their pizza? Like, what happened to the money?" said Joey Repice, the restaurant's beverage director, in "Bad Vegan." 

Salkin sees the appeal of focusing on the irony, stating that some vegans put on a superior front, believing they're better than others because they don't harm animals and are maintaining environmentally-friendly diets. "The fact that she would become involved in a criminal scheme like this sort of belies who she's presenting to the world," said Salkin.