Charles Sonnenberg loves the zoo, and at 71 years old, he’s not afraid to admit it. The CEO and president of Frugal MacDoogal, a company of three beverage stores—with a flagship in Nashville and two additional locations in Fort Mill and Columbia, South Carolina—has been a longtime supporter of the Nashville Zoo, both personally and professionally. Giving back to his local communities is important for Sonnenberg, and has been for the duration of his four decades of beverage retail in Tennessee’s capital city. Today, the zoo is his primary focus.
“When I moved to Nashville in 1983, I felt it necessary to participate in the community where I was going to build this business,” Sonnenberg says. “Frugal MacDoogal actively tries to participate in initiatives that benefit the needs of our customers.” For his continued dedication to helping the markets in which he has stores, Sonnenberg wins the 2022 Market Watch Leaders “Community Service Award.”
Frugal MacDoogal debuted its Nashville store in 1983 and has been a key part of the city’s beverage retail landscape ever since. Sonnenberg, a 1988 Market Watch Leader and the 2009 “Retailer of the Year,” was committed to being a positive force in the city from the beginning. Early on, he focused on health-related charities and local cultural and educational groups. Sonnenberg was an early supporter of the Un Été Du Vin Nashville Cancer Auction and has been a longtime champion for education and school-related efforts in Nashville.
“It was necessary to be part of the philanthropy in this city,” Sonnenberg says. “We’ve certainly succeeded in that effort.” Over time, his energy transitioned to the Nashville Zoo, which opened in 1991 with support from Sonnenberg. “Our focus narrowed, primarily because of my personal interest, in the establishment and development of the Nashville Zoo,” he explains. “We’re active in its conservation program—funding conservation around the world and domestically—and have become an integral part of the zoo’s activities. I grew up in Zimbabwe when there was no concern about species becoming endangered and disappearing. Times have changed, and we now very much recognize the need for conservation. That’s what I’m interested in.”
Sonnenberg has served on the Nashville Zoo’s board of directors and currently remains on its advisory board and conservation board. In addition, Frugal MacDoogal is one of the zoo’s corporate partners. Sonnenberg says he visited the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans during one of its fundraising programs, where he saw local companies active in on-site food and beverage tastings, and brought those ideas back to Nashville.
The Nashville Zoo hosts several fundraising events annually that highlight beverage alcohol, from Brew at the Zoo to wine festivals and spirits tastings, which Frugal MacDoogal supports with product donations and staff. “The zoo has social events of various themes, where people visit tasting stations set up all over the zoo,” Sonnenberg says. “There are numerous fundraising events with alcohol beverages as the focus and we’ve been active both with labor and product for those, and we’ve included our local wholesalers and suppliers, who’ve been extremely generous in the success of these charitable efforts.”
He adds that the zoo hosts roughly ten social events a year and that some of them can attract upwards of 3,000 people. “The events—focused on education and conservation—are extremely well managed, and in an environment where there is sufficient room for guests, with tasting stations all over the zoo,” he says. “People are able to visit the zoo exhibits and enjoy different alcoholic beverages at the same time. It raises significant money, and is a pleasurable social event for people over age 21. It’s a great success and we continue to do it.”
While the bulk of Frugal MacDoogal’s charitable efforts are focused around the Nashville Zoo, Sonnenberg notes that his wife is an active supporter of the Nashville Assistance League—a volunteer nonprofit that helps local underserved children with school supplies and clothes—and his company provides for that group, too. In addition, at his South Carolina locations, Sonnenberg actively supports local Humane Society shelters and other animal-related charities.
“We promote these events through digital marketing, our website, emails, and social media,” Sonnenberg says. “We also do promotions where some of the proceeds of the sale of specific products are directed toward appropriate charities.”
Retail competition is fierce in both Nashville and South Carolina. The Nashville Frugal MacDoogal location has evolved immensely since opening 40 years ago, largely due to revitalization in the city itself. “There’s been a regentrification in downtown Nashville and urban living here,” Sonnenberg says, adding that local businesses and tourism are both thriving in the city now. “Our location is our original, and it’s now surrounded by high-rise residential buildings. We’ve seen a metamorphosis being in the center of this city. We used to claw our customer base from an area as far as 50 miles away, but now the neighborhood has reinvented itself to affluent urban living.”
Sonnenberg’s heart is in Nashville, though he also does extensive business outside of Tennessee. Years ago, Tennessee only permitted beverage retailers to operate one store in the state, so Sonnenberg branched out to South Carolina in 1990, opening his first Frugal MacDoogal in Fort Mill and adding a second in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2004. He’s also a partner on five on-premise restaurants in the South, serving as a co-owner of the upscale steak house concept New York Prime in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Boca Raton, Florida; and Atlanta; and of Chophouse New Orleans in New Orleans, and Chophouse ’47 in Greenville, South Carolina.
“We have been a leader since our inception,” Sonnenberg says of Frugal MacDoogal. “With active competition, we continue to thrive and try to remain creative so that we can continue to be successful.” He adds that Frugal MacDoogal attracts a wide customer base with varying economic backgrounds. “Our shoppers range from the pint consumer to the esoteric Bourbon collector, from the jug wine consumer to the classified Bordeaux and Burgundy drinker. It’s a changing market and I’ve seen over the years that change is occurring far more rapidly now than it used to. It’s incumbent on us to stay with, if not ahead of, trends.”
Spirits lead at Frugal MacDoogal, contributing nearly half of total sales. Sonnenberg says Bourbon and Tequila continue to do well and he’s also noticed an uptick in demand for artisanal gin. The company’s top-selling spirits include Tito’s Handmade vodka ($28 a 1.75-liter), Jack Daniel’s black label Bourbon ($43), and 1800 Silver Tequila ($33 a 750-ml.). Local spirits also get a large platform at Frugal MacDoogal, led by labels like Davidson Reserve Bourbon ($37 a 750-ml.) and Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee whiskey ($30).
Wine consumers at Frugal MacDoogal have varied palates. Sonnenberg says Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are both doing well these days, as are all forms of sparkling, from Prosecco to Champagne. The sweet spot for wine at his stores is $14-$18, he notes. Wine makes up 35% of sales company-wide. Frugal MacDoogal’s top-performing wines include Natale Verga Prosecco ($14 a 750-ml.), Block 245 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($14), Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($16), and Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($14).
In beer, Sonnenberg sees the same shifts in his stores that are happening nationwide, a surge in RTDs and seltzers with a decline in traditional beer purchases. Beer and miscellaneous beverage items comprise 17% of sales at Frugal MacDoogal. Big-name domestic leaders at the stores include Bud Light ($26 a 24-pack of cans or bottles) and Michelob Ultra ($17 a 12-pack of cans or bottles), while top craft players span Bearded Iris Homestyle IPA ($14 a 4-pack of cans) and multiple labels by Yazoo Brewing Co. ($10 a 6-pack). In RTDs and seltzers, Frugal MacDoogal’s top movers come from High Noon ($10 a 4-pack), Happy Dad ($19 a 12-pack), and Truly ($19 a 12-pack).
Company-wide, Frugal MacDoogal averages 5,000 SKUs per store, with wine comprising roughly 2,100 SKUs and spirits taking 2,000 SKUs; beer, seltzer, and ready-to-drink offerings span 950 SKUs. The flagship Nashville Frugal MacDoogal is 15,000 square feet, while the South Carolina locations are larger, topping out at 30,000 square feet. Online retail isn’t a huge factor for Frugal MacDoogal, as both Tennessee and South Carolina have restrictive laws. Sonnenberg says the Nashville store offers product delivery within the city but no shipping, and South Carolina isn’t permitted to allow shipping or delivery. Both stores have an online presence, but their websites are intended to be more informational than retail based.
Sonnenberg has lived and breathed the beverage retail industry for decades. And while he has no intention of changing course, he’s also looking toward the future. A few years ago, he created an employee stock option program, through which he is able to sell shares of the company back to his staff, thereby empowering employees at each Frugal MacDoogal location. Sonnenberg remains the company’s CEO and president and enjoys having a productive role in the company, but says he’s attempting to slow down a bit, too. Though he has no formal plans for further retail expansion, Sonnenberg adds that additional stores are always a possibility.
“I’ve put my blood and sweat into this business and been lucky and successful,” Sonnenberg says. “We have large-format stores that we strive to keep contemporary and well merchandised so that it’s exciting to shop with us, and we have a highly trained staff. We feel that helps us keep an edge over the competition as we continue to thrive.”