Exclusive: Sarma Melngailis Opens up About What’s Going on at Pure Food and Wine

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Photo: Mark Cuddihee

(Photo: Mark Cuddihee)

On January 13, 2015, the staff at New York City's most revered (and only fine dining) raw food restaurant walked out, and chef-owner Sarma Melngailis has not commented on the ongoing drama—until now.

Pure Food and Wine has been the go-to spot for the city's wellness elite, like superstar yogis, for more than a decade. Celebrities like Katie Holmes eat there, and Alec Baldwin found Hilaria by dining in the picturesque garden.

So naturally, many were shocked by the turn of events. Employees from both Pure Food and Wine and takeout sister shop One Lucky Duck began protesting outside the restaurant with signs that said "Wages Now!" and "Many Unlucky Ducks," and Grubstreet published an essay from a waitress detailing how long it had been since her and her co-workers had been paid. Through it all, Melngailis stayed silent, not responding to requests from reporters and going mum on social media.

Now, nearly a month later, the restaurant and One Lucky Duck locations remain shuttered (and the New York Times even declared them "closed" last week). But Melngailis has surfaced, first via a personal blog post, and then agreeing to an exclusive interview with Well+Good. 

When asked, she declined to share the exact details of the events leading up to the payroll debacle, but admitted that a variety of circumstances (both personal and professional) caused the situation to spin out of control.

"When things are on the edge, its easier for things to come apart," she said. "What a lot of people and even the staff don’t know is that the restaurant has a very complicated history, and from day one has had an enormous amount of debt on the books. People from the outside see a busy restaurant, and they assume I must live in a huge penthouse...and it could not be more opposite. There are plenty of times I have not been paying my own rent to make payroll."

Sarma Melngailis
Employees protesting (Photo: Eater.com)

Running a restaurant focused on high-quality, healthy ingredients in the most expensive city in the country, she says, has also been nearly unsustainable. "The ingredients are all organic and perishable and very expensive. It's really, really hard to make it work. A lot of healthy, organic businesses have started and gone out of business. The margins are so slim," she says.

Of course, none of the explanations for the financial woes change the fact that staffers have not been paid for many hours already worked, and one of their biggest complaints was that Melngailis had been absent and silent rather than filling them in on what was going on.

On this point, Melngailis says she's particularly distraught, explaining that she was out of town looking into solutions to some of the restaurant's problems when the walk-out happened, and she wishes she had been more communicative. "I have a tendency, when I’m feeling bad and down, to really hide and work on my computer and try to fix things," she says. "It's painful for me every day knowing that they’re all waiting on me. That hurts me every day. I get that people don’t understand—I don’t expect them to—and at some point I can explain it more, once the dust settles, and more importantly, once they’re paid. It’s heartbreaking to me."

As for the future, Melngailis says she's working day and night to secure funding to get the business back up and running as soon as possible, but she's not ready to commit to any timeline. "I wouldn’t say anything until everything is confirmed," she says. "I look forward to healing all those relationships and making things right." —Lisa Elaine Held

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