Mary Twinem has helped shepherd Buffalo Wild Wings from a small privately owned chain to one of the nation's hottest restaurant concepts, with 1,000 outlets and about $1.5 billion in annual sales.

Twinem, Buffalo Wild Wings' longtime chief financial officer, started at Wild Wings in 1995, following in the footsteps of Sally Smith. Smith, Wild Wings' CEO for the past 20 years, and Twinem both had worked at Dahlberg Inc., a hearing aid business.

Buffalo Wild Wings scored big with its wings, beer and sports motif. And investors have been richly rewarded. Over the past five years alone, Wild Wings has provided shareholders with a 300 percent return, almost three times that of the broad stock market.

Wild Wings still has plenty of room to grow in the United States, particularly in the West and East. The company has also started expanding overseas and buying into small-but-promising restaurant concepts like PizzaRev and Rusty Taco.

The Star Tribune talked with Twinem recently about all things wings, as the company geared up for a big traffic day: Super Bowl Sunday.

Q: Buffalo Wild Wings over the past year has been adding a "guest experience captain" to its restaurants. Explain the concept, and has it been fully implemented?

A: In all of our company-owned restaurants, we have a guest experience captain. It's a person who is really focused on the customer experience and how our guests use our technology. They also do food sampling in the restaurant, so when new sauces come out, or new beers, they would be the point person. Our franchisees are beginning to roll out guest captains as well. It is part of our overall guest experience strategy.

Q: What does that strategy include?

A: One of the biggest pieces is technology: Samsung, Android-based tablets that customers can use to play games and eventually to order food. We have just a couple of stores in Minneapolis and Dallas that are testing tablet menu ordering now. But we will soon be extending the test to all of the Twin Cities and Dallas markets and expect to roll it out nationally to all company-owned restaurants by year's end.

Q: So the guest captain is neither waiter nor host — it's a completely new position. Do other companies have such a thing?

A: I can't think of another casual diner that has approached this service strategy like us. We have invested heavily in having this captain position across all of our restaurants because we do believe it makes a difference in the customer's experience, and that it will set us apart. I think there are other restaurant concepts actually looking at ways they can scale back their labor.

Q: But you are adding costs. How do you make this work when you are also facing minimum wage increases?

A: There have been minimum wage increases that we felt in a couple of states — Minnesota being one of them, California another one — that have been more significant over the last 12 months. But we believe this guest experience model and the captain position in particular are important for driving sales for the long term. We do believe our sales will grow into that additional labor cost.

Q: What price increases have you implemented since last fall, and have they been specifically to counter higher labor costs, including from the guest captains?

A: In November, we took an average menu price increase of 3 percent across the country at company-owned stores. This is really a combination of a lot of input costs. It is increased labor expenses and it's also our expectation that wing prices will be up over last year as we go into 2015.

Q: What strikes me about Buffalo Wild Wings is its consistently good performance. Often, new restaurant concepts just kind of fade after a certain time. This hasn't. Why?

A: We've always taken the approach that you have to continue to change and change with your guests. We feel if we can stay relevant to 20-somethings, then we will be relevant across all age groups. Twenty-somethings are all about technology, so you have to go with technology.

Q: So if you get the 20-somethings, you get the rest. Why?

A: If you are relevant to the 20-somethings, your restaurants will be where the high school kids want to go. The 30-somethings and 40-somethings who now have families and kids still think it's the cool place to be. I think there are restaurant concepts that haven't changed. They were the cool place to go when you were in your 20s, and they stuck with it and aged with their population. They became the cool place for 40- and 50-year-olds to go.

Q: Tell me about Buffalo Wild Wings' Team Up for Kids program.

A: We began a few years ago thinking how we can make a bigger difference in the communities we operate in. We focused on youth-in-need as it relates to youth sports and youth programming. We found a partner — Boys & Girls Clubs of America — that really does an awesome job. They needed a way to expand their sports programming. So, we began our partnership in 2013 with them, focusing on football. Last year, over 28,000 kids were on flag football leagues, tackle football and cheerleading programs through our grant program. Also, across the country we did 10 major grants which were focused on renovating facilities. Here in the Twin Cities, we donated $25,000 to the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club so it could renovate its gymnasium and make it usable for basketball leagues. We are also part of a coaching education program that last year trained over 5,000 coaches throughout the country.

Q: Do the grants come from the company or a foundation you have set up?

A: From the company. Every time somebody buys a bottle of sauce in a restaurant, we donate 50 cents from that purchase to Boys & Girls Clubs for these grants. We also make a direct contribution from the company to Boys & Girls Clubs of America. And then once a year — the month of October — we do "pinup" sales, so in all of our restaurants you buy a paper pinup for a dollar. It's a piece a paper, you put your name on it and we stick it up on the wall — a donation from our guests. We overall donated $1.8 million last year, and our goal is to donate over $5 million total by 2016.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003