Chris Barnes reflects on his last seven years at Lucky’s Last Chance.
By Leo Dillinger
Photos by Alexa Nahas Photography (alexanahas.com)
“It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact.
Then when luck comes you are ready.”
The Old Man & The Sea
When Chris Barnes was a kid, his parents took him on road trips to visit his grandparents in Florida. Driving south from his hometown of Cheshire, Connecticut, they’d stop at gas stations along the way and ask the attendants where to find the best local food. Whether they were searching for the best burger or hot dog, the family would go out of their way to hunt those places down.
To this day, those memories still resonate with Chris and continue to play a major role in his life. Tell him the world’s greatest hot dog can be found in some greasy spoon two hours away on a back road off some major highway and he’ll gladly take the trip. It’s this wanderlust, destination-dining mentality that drove Chris and his business partners to craft the concept behind one of Manayunk’s most iconic restaurants.
“Lucky’s Last Chance really blossomed out of the idea of a vintage road trip-inspired beer and burger bar with a little bit of punk rock attitude,” Chris said. “I grew up in Connecticut not far from the shoreline. Where there are cheesesteak places here, up there it was hot dogs, burgers, fried clams, and lobster rolls. That was something I missed being a New Englander in Philadelphia. I missed those creature comforts and a little taste of home.”
Chris moved to the area to attend college at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 1993. After graduation, he moved to Manayunk and immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. He noted the long-standing small businesses like Marchiano’s Bakery and Main Street Music kept him coming back for years no matter how far away he moved.
Following a series of corporate jobs in marketing, radio, and event promotions, Chris wound up at a hotel company that oversaw the property at 4421 Main Street, where Lucky’s Last Chance would eventually take its roots. Although the bar had a much different concept back then, he still admired the layout and overall feel of the space.
In 2010, the company prepared to sell the bar. With a brand new concept and business model in mind, Chris and his soon-to-be partners, Mike Gartner and Sandra Barnes, took a leap of faith that would change their lives.
“When the opportunity came up to buy the business, we jumped on it,” Chris said. “The bones of that building were always great, but it was very masked before. It had big red velvet curtains upstairs and felt like a completely different space. We just opened it up and returned it back to its raw form.”
The Lucky’s Last Chance equation is brilliantly simple: craft beer and comfort food. Prior to starting the business, the three partners along with day-one staffers Anthony Imperiale and Chris Pelusi enjoyed “nerding out” over craft beers and learned a lot from the city’s niche beer scene at the time. But Chris likes to joke that you couldn’t just get a craft beer and a burger without having upscale ingredients on it like foie gras or sea urchin. The industry didn’t need to be so overcomplicated.
“Our question was, ‘How do we take simple comfort food, get the best product available to us, and step that up?’ as opposed to using higher-end ingredients,” Chris said. “Instead of the frozen burger that so many places use, use a fresh product, make sure the roll-to-meat ratio is right, the structural integrity is there, and that this thing is something people will talk about. We wanted our customers to walk away saying ‘Holy s***. This thing was crazy. This thing was amazing.’”
Lucky’s Last Chance quietly opened its doors in late August of 2011 without a grand opening. As a first time ownership group, the partners were grateful for anybody walking through the door. Although the team saw a slow-growing clientele base as well as a number of positive blog reviews, there still weren’t enough customers coming through the door. Chris described their first year as “chaotic, exhausting, stressful, and scary,” fearing they would become another statistic among new restaurants that failed to make the cut.
Fortunately enough, a lucky break came their way at the 2013 Philly Burger Brawl when they took home the People’s Choice Award for their infamous PB & Bacon Burger.
The idea of peanut butter on a bacon cheeseburger served with a side of jelly has always raised eyebrows. But what started out as a joke among the staff soon made its way onto the original menu alongside seven other fairly conservative burgers. The 2013 People’s Choice Award put Lucky’s Last Chance on the map as more patrons came through the door, more rave reviews were written, and they became a must-try destination in the Philly area. To this day, the PB & Bacon Burger has won Lucky’s three People’s Choice Awards at the Burger Brawl (2013, 2016, and 2018.)
“That burger is one of my favorite things in the world because it was so dumb at the time, but now it’s such a big piece of our history,” Chris said, as he couldn’t help but laugh. “Somehow, it just worked for what we were doing.”
Although the PB & Bacon Burger might be their boldest menu staple, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Chris says the only requirements for their menu are that it has to taste delicious and be executed properly and consistently. From the Scorpion Dog (a hot dog topped with Mak & Cheese and jalapenos) to Junkyard Tots (with bacon, cheddar cheese, sour cream and chives), you’d think Willy Wonka opened up a savory second business endeavor.
Perhaps the most entertaining feature for the bar’s regulars is the Burger of The Month. Throughout the year, the team crafts a new burger to showcase each month. At the start of the New Year, they host the “Burger Battle Royale,” where the burgers face off against each other and the best seller gets permanently added to the menu. It’s practically March Madness for burger lovers. Previous winners that have made it onto Lucky’s permanent menu include the Incomparable Bacon Cheddar Burger, the Buffalo Wing Burger, and the Big Fat Greek Burger.
Food plays a vital role in the business’s success, but so does their craft beer selection. While Lucky’s Last Chance has a fairly extensive selection of cans and bottles, there are only six beers on tap. The limited number of taps allows the team to serve the freshest beer to the customers and consistently update their tap list. It also gives them the opportunity to host different breweries and showcase different beer styles.
“Early on, craft beer was still really scary for a lot of people,” Chris said. “It was intimidating and they didn’t know what they liked so part of our job was helping them figure that out. We had to cultivate a market for that. But that was the fun part because we were learning with other people. We were still learning about beer, but we were just a little further ahead because we got to taste so often.”
Chris and his partners wouldn’t be where they are today without the team of rock stars that work alongside them. In Manayunk, Lucky’s Last Chance employs nearly 30 full-time and part-time staffers, some who have worked there for years. Chris and the team set the bar early on and his staff has been raising it ever since. They understand the importance of quality service that keeps customers coming back for more. In an industry with high turnover rates, it’s hard to believe Chris has held onto so many people for so long. Then again, they get the perk of taste-testing new menu items so it’s really no surprise.
“We’ve got to be doing something right. It’s been a trend that follows us,” Chris said. “Part of it is hiring the right people and part of it is putting people in a great environment where they feel that they’re a part of something and they have a voice.”
Over the last seven years of business, Lucky’s Last Chance has embraced the community that surrounds it. They’ve worked on fundraisers and projects for North Light Community Center and the Friends of Pretzel Park. They host “Lucky’s Great Weiner Race” benefitting PAWS (Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society) every year, where attendees watch dachshunds dressed in hot dog costumes race on a track. They’ve partnered with local businesses on numerous occasions and have donated staff time to Manayunk Meals & More, where Manayunk restaurants come together to cook meals for those less fortunate in the community.
Chris also spent six years on the board of the Manayunk Development Corporation to help shape the community into what it is today.
“Manayunk feels like home,” Chris said. “My favorite thing about this neighborhood is the people here: The customers, the business owners. It’s the people that make this neighborhood so fascinating to me. This place has its own heartbeat. It has its own soul. It’s just a small town feel within a big city. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.”
For Chris Barnes and the folks of Lucky’s Last Chance, the past seven years have been one hell of a journey: winning three Philly Burger Brawls, opening a second Lucky’s location in Queen Village in 2016, working with hundreds of craft breweries, growing their annual events exponentially, receiving a myriad of rave reviews from local and national publications, serving thousands of satisfied customers, and giving back to Manayunk.
When I asked Chris if there was one message he wanted to convey to the readers of this story, it was simply, “Thank you.”
“I’m so grateful every day for the opportunity to do what we do, to have the team I get to work with in the neighborhood we get to do it in,” Chris said. “I’m grateful for the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to meet along the way that make up the business and social community that is Manayunk. I will never stop being grateful for all of the support and how amazing everyone’s been to us. I will never stop saying thank you. It’s been such a gift to be here seven years already and we’re certainly looking forward to a lot more. I feel like we won the lottery to be in the position we are in today.”