Before he went to college, Frank Fontaine knew he’d rather go to school to train to be a bartender.
“Blame it on Sam Malone,” Fontaine says. “ ‘Cheers’ always had a special place in my heart.”
Fontaine’s parents wanted him to get a college degree, so he earned his bachelor’s degree in theater, minoring in dance, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Well known around Lancaster city for running the bar programs at other restaurants, Fontaine is now the beverage director at The Exchange at the Lancaster Marriott.
Fontaine says his father eventually told him, “Yeah, we probably should have just let you be a bartender.
Fontaine, 38, performed in theater and dance productions throughout high school in his hometown of Franklin, Venango County.
His restaurant experience started long before that.
“I was raised in a playpen in a Pizza Hut, where my mother was a manager,” Fontaine says. “That’s how I started in the restaurant industry. I was always behind the scenes with my mom, and places (where) she managed and waitressed.
“I think my first real food job was Dairy Queen when I was 16,” Fontaine says. “I just kind of moved through the ranks. I did everything — dishwasher, busser, cook, server, bar back.”
When he turned 21 as a student at Indiana, Fontaine finally became a bartender at a local spot called The Coney.
He moved to Lancaster to live with a friend “whose roommate skipped out on him” in 2006, and managed a Starbucks. From there he moved on to Annie Bailey’s, running the bar there for eight years.
“I fell in love with the town,” Fontaine says. “I saw the potential the town had before the downtown started becoming what it is. It’s a beautiful city with beautiful people.”
When Annie Bailey’s changed ownership, Fontaine started the bar program at the former Aussie & The Fox.
From there, he moved on to John J. Jeffries at the Lancaster Arts Hotel, where he worked for five years before coming to the Marriott to run the bar program for The Exchange and the ground-floor restaurant, Plough, with a target opening date of early August.
Fontaine is married to Amanda Fontaine, and the couple has a 3-year-old daughter and a son due in November.
“Ninety percent of the cocktail menu is completely original,” Fontaine says. “The other 10% plays on things I’ve done before. I’m always tweaking things.
“We have a yogurt drink, called the Smooth Operator, that I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Fontaine says. “It’s brandy, pineapple, lavender tea and a vanilla-honey yogurt.”
While Fontaine says he appreciates all kinds of cocktails, his personal preference is “a well-made Manhattan.” He’s interested in the well-made spirits that are at the foundation of good cocktails.
“I’m a mezcal guy,” he says. “I think smokiness, smoked flavorings, is a big trend (in cocktails),” along with the use of mezcal and brandy — “some of the more unused spirits that are becoming more readily available in a finer quality.”
At The Exchange, “we’re trying to work as seasonal as we can,” Fontaine says. “So, with the warmer weather, I want drinks that are a little bit cooler, a little bit more refreshing — clean, with unique ingredients.”
But does he ever get to use that theater degree?
“I see bartending and theater as one in the same,” Fontaine says. “The bar’s a stage, the drinks are the props, there’s an audience every night. This one’s definitely a lot more ad-libbing. But I still have a script I somewhat work with.”