North Buffalo bar closes following ugly behavior

Owner of M.T. Pockets shouted at racial justice protesters. His brother mooned them. Patrons hurled racist insults. The bar, a hangout for Democrats, is now closed following complaints it failed to adhere to COVID regulations.

Racist taunts from patrons of a Hertel Avenue bar have led to its temporary closure due to violations of COVID regulations and a city employee being suspended for mooning demonstrators.

Marchers demanding police reform and racial equality clashed with M.T. Pockets bar patrons Tuesday night, as the patrons hurled vile taunts and phrases, including the n-word, toward protestors. 

“You’re killing my business,” Philip Alagna, the bar’s owner, shouted from the patio as tensions escalated between the bar’s patrons and protesters, who had returned to the scene of an ugly incident Friday evening. 

Alagna is well known in Democratic politics and his bar, a few blocks west of Parkside Avenue, has frequently hosted fundraisers for party candidates.

He is married to New York State Supreme Court Justice Diane Devlin. In the past 15 years, he has been a prolific donor to Democratic candidates, who have often used his bar for fundraisers.

Alagna — a retired Buffalo Sewer Authority employee who draws an annual pension of $22,773 a year — has personally made almost $47,000 in political contributions in the past 15 years, according to records maintained by the New York State Board of Elections. 

Most of that — $29,000 — went to the Erie County Democratic Committee. He also gave $5,700 to his wife’s campaigns in 2005 and 2019.

Alagna gave $2,725 to the state Senate campaign of Marc Coppola, who briefly served in the seat previously occupied by his cousin, Al Coppola, to whom Alagna also donated.

Alagna donated $2,000 to Mayor Byron Brown, nearly $1,000 to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and $750 to Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner.

On Wednesday afternoon, Zellner said the Erie County Democratic Committee would no longer accept donations from Alagna, nor would the party hold events there.

“The displays of racism on Hertel Avenue we have seen in recent days have no place in our community and are in stark contrast to all that our Democratic Party stands for,” Zellner said in a statement on social media.

Poloncarz said he would not patronize the bar nor hold fundraisers there in the future. He said he’d spoken with a friend of Alagna, who described Alagna as “remorseful.”

“Hopefully he’ll be issuing a statement noting that to the public,” Poloncarz said. “I think it’s important that he does.”

The bar subsequently issued a statement to media outlets that read in part: “We are sorry that things got out of control and some of our customers acted inappropriately yesterday. We do not tolerate racism in our establishment. We are saddened that our establishment is being viewed in this manner. We do not condone racism or violence.”

Alagna’s only donation to a non-Democrat was $500 to an Erie County Conservative Party campaign committee that sometimes backs Democrats. That was in December 2018, the year before Devlin ran for re-election.

Our Weekly Newsletter

Alagna’s relatives — several of them city firefighters — have augmented his own political patronage, adding more than $11,000 in campaign contributions to the same candidates he has backed, including Devlin, his wife.

Phil’s brother, Alessio, a Buffalo Sewer Authority employee, was suspended from his job Wednesday for mooning the protesters Tuesday evening. Alessio Alagna has donated $1,829 to Byron Brown.

“Buffalo Sewer does not condone this kind of behavior from any of its employees, especially when they are representing Buffalo Sewer,” Oluwole McFoy, the authority’s general manager, said in a statement, which noted an investigation had been opened.

Alessio Alagna appeared to be wearing a yellow BSA t-shirt during the incident.

In past years, the bar has been a hotbed of political activity. It served as a sort of headquarters for the Delaware Club, a North Buffalo Democratic organization. It has hosted fundraisers for a long list of Democratic politicians, including  Thomas Amodeo, Lynn Marinelli, Mark Schroeder, Sam Hoyt, Michelle Iannello and Mark Poloncarz, to name a few.

More than 100 complaints were launched against the bar Tuesday into Wednesday. The Erie County Department of Health’s Division of Environmental services is investigating the bar after videos surfaced showing an over-crowded patio with few people wearing masks. 

A notice was taped to the door Wednesday afternoon. Erie County Executive Poloncarz said in a press conference the notice was a recommendation that the restaurant close due to failure to comply with COVID regulations. Mayor Byron Brown subsequently announced the bar had agreed to shut its doors.

The county Health Department has received complaints previously regarding M.T. Pockets violating COVID regulations. On June 30, the inspectors found “an imminent health hazard condition.” The issue was remedied when one of the bartenders put on his face mask correctly, the inspection noted. 

Two other COVID-related complaints were filed against the bar in July. 

Apart from COVID compliance issues, M. T. Pockets has a relatively clean record with county health inspectors. Its handful of violations include, for example, failure to keep a thermometer in a refrigeration unit.In addition, the state filed a warrant in 2019 for $759 in unpaid taxes, and in 2015 for $1,044 related to unemployment insurance payments.

A spokesman for the State Liquor Authority said the bar has not been cited for any violations over the past 20 years. He said a determination by the county Health Department that a bar had violated COVID mandates could trigger a review by the SLA.

A representative from the Erie County Health Department said M.T. Pockets is closed until it develops and implements a safety plan that satisfies state COVID guidelines.