One late winter afternoon at Chelsea Market, Sarma Melngailis was mulling potential colors for the sign outside her new raw vegan juice bar and takeaway, One Lucky Duck, which had since Nov. 30 inhabited an airy space with its own entrance on 15th Street. “If you have everything green related to a vegan juice bar concept, it’s kind of cliché,” she remarked, before settling on a sultrier “raspberry grape-ish” color.
The juice bar was a spare operation, offering premade juices, Thai lettuce wraps and chocolate chip cookies shaped like hearts (none heated above 118 degrees, “to preserve vital enzymes and nutrients,” advised the menu), all imported from the kitchen of Ms. Melngailis’s raw-food restaurant, Pure Food & Wine, on Irving Place. The proprietress’s image—sassy, blond, youthful—gazed down serenely from her latest cookbook, Living Raw Food, which was stacked behind the register. “Get the Glow,” promised its cover. Ms. Melngailis’ fetching visage also appears on her e-commerce site, oneluckyduck.com (in one shot, she seems to cuddle up to a bundle of cilantro), where she sells her own branded packaged snacks and blogs under the headline “Sarma Raw.”
But today, she was slumped at a table over her laptop in a ponytail, Phish baseball hat and a long-sleeved T-shirt that said “Pennsylvania Wrestling.” She’d been up until 5 a.m. writing important emails pertaining to this long-planned expansion of her raw-food empire and hadn’t even had time to wash her hair. In person, Ms. Melngailis, who is 37, can be guarded, serious and prone to long pauses while she formulates the right thought; her measured affect contrasts with the raw-food pinup image she projects on her cookbooks. She is fiercely protective of her brand, having wrestled Pure Food from the grip of Matthew Kenney, her co-founder and onetime boyfriend, in the aftermath of their public and acrimonious split four years ago. “We need more stuff in here,” she said, professing dismay at the lack of homey touches (framed pictures of ducks, a selection of organic cosmetics) that make the original One Lucky Duck juice bar, adjacent to the restaurant on 17th Street, appealing to the clientele of models constantly folded into its chairs. She felt the new space had opened before it was really ready.
A little over a week later, a visitor to Chelsea Market noticed there was even less stuff in Ms. Melngailis’ shop; in fact, there was none. “I ended up going there at night and pulling all my product and staff out, ninja style,” Ms. Melngailis said, reached by phone. She had had a kerfuffle with an investor she preferred not to name (though she did provide The Observer with his cell-phone number, calls to which were not returned). “They had more control, technically,” said Ms. Melngailis, “And I didn’t think that it was going to be the sort of control where things plow forward, and I’m sort of steamrolled over in terms of saying, ‘Wait a minute, this needs to be this way and this needs to be this way.’” Ms. Melngailis said she “felt like I was being pushed into this role of bobble-head promoter.”
IN FACT, she is a serious businesswoman who wants to bring her brand of “accessible, high-quality,” oven-free eating to the masses via a series of juice-bar takeaways in several different cities (she compared her model to Le Pain Quotidien’s). Last summer, Ms. Melngailis paved the way for this expansion by purchasing Pure Food from its original investor, Jeffrey Chodorow, and establishing an umbrella company, One Lucky Duck, LLC, owned wholly by her. She also enlisted a new investor to finance the juice-bar expansion: first in Chelsea Market, and then, if all went well, elsewhere in Manhattan and other cities. Luckily, as the larger deal hinged on the success of the Chelsea Market location, no paperwork had yet been signed; Ms. Melngailis said that to her knowledge, her investor is stuck with the lease. A representative for Chelsea Market refused to comment on the current tenant or future plans for the space, which now sits empty.
A former banker at Bear Sterns who admits to not knowing her way around Brooklyn, Ms. Melngailis is proud of the high-end, “sexy” sheen she’s put on her brand of crunch. If raw food has in the years since Pure Food’s opening ceded media ink to trends like locavorism and artisanal butchery, which she sees as complementary (Ms. Melngailis herself admits to eating fish regularly until reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, Eating Animals), Pure Food soldiers on, weathering a recession that has flattened more formidable enterprises, serving pricey sake drinks, zucchini lasagna and cashew-based ice creams to loyal fans like Gisele Bündchen and Woody Harrelson. (According to Page Six, Owen Wilson, a regular and a friend of Ms. Melngailis’, recently skipped the line at One Lucky Duck and wandered right into the kitchen.) When Ms. Melngailis first met Mr. Kenney, in 2003, she was a finance refugee and dedicated carnivore just out of culinary school whom he’d hired as a researcher on one of his cookbooks. He was at the time a troubled culinary superstar, beginning to close a string of New York restaurants for financial reasons. During a “grim” summer when he had no working businesses, the couple were beginning to work on a concept for an upscale burger bar (“Back then, it would have been new!” said Ms. Melngailis) when they happened upon raw food at the café Quintessence. There they struck up a conversation with a pretty girl eating alone, who told them, “I wish someone would open a cool raw-food restaurant.”