The Wing is Wild Still:Wild Wing Café: Celebrating 25 Years of hot wings, cold beer & good times
Author: KITTY BARTELL
Cranford Hollow revs up the Wild Wing Cafe crowd during this years’s St. Patrick’s Day party & parade.
It was the late 1980s, and Dianne and Cecil Crowley were at that stage in their successful Atlanta advertising careers when they were ready to simplify; ready to kick-back and relocate; ready for a new adventure; and they thought, let’s open a restaurant… famous words of the courageous and quite possibly crazy. Readily acknowledging that they didn’t realize what they were getting into, it was their relative restaurant naivety, along with their instinct to focus on the customer experience that has taken them to wildly (forgive the obvious reference) successful heights.
“We didn’t approach Wild Wing from the mind of a restaurateur; it was always approached from the mind of the customer. Things that other people know in the restaurant business, we didn’t know. It was our intuition that told us to take care of the customer first, and that worked out for us, and we taught that as we grew,” Dianne Crowley said. “The people that we met in food and beverage had the mindset of, ‘let’s do something a little outside the box; let’s work hard but make it fun.’ We tried to have a minimum number of rules. It should never become a “job”—ever. We were much less about pivot points, and much more about personality.”
Wild Wing’s director of marketing Simone Bruderer says that philosophy still holds true today. “We don’t just serve the customers. We try to be hospitable. Servers may sit down with you to take your order and chat. That’s something we’ve encouraged because we want people to feel at home and relaxed and laid back. We treat customers like they are coming home.” A home where there’s always a party. “We like to throw a party,” Bruderer said. “We’ll find any excuse to do just that, and we want to go all out. We want people to hang out as long as they like and come back often.”
Where did the “wing” in Wild Wing originate? “Years ago I had a cooking show in Jacksonville where we had all these great recipes, and I learned how to cook from the people who would come on the show,” Dianne said. “Cecil and I had absolutely no restaurant experience at all, but we used to have a Super Bowl party every year at our home in Atlanta. A tremendous number of people would come, and we noticed the teriyaki, ranch, and honey mustard wings that my mom made would go first. We decided we should try to sell those, along with Buffalo wings, and I started practicing on people all over the island. I practiced every single flavor of wings on locals like Monty Jett and Fred Warren of the Chilly Willy Band. Some were good, some not so much. The chili wing was okay. The chocolate wing was terrible. If you don’t try you don’t know.”
The menu has grown over the years to include bar-party classics like burgers, sliders, sandwiches, Wild starters, exciting extras, their newest Fiesta menu, and their Wild Child menu for the younger devotees. However, make no mistake: Wings are still the driving flavor force behind Wild Wing’s success, and according to Bruderer, “those flavors are not just on our wings, but on our burgers and our chicken sandwiches, and incorporated throughout our entire menu.”
Opening day in 1990, there were seven well-tested wing flavors on the menu, and today there are 34. “We’ve come a long way since them, but it’s still a part of who are,” Bruderer said. The Wild Wing menu committee is composed of a core group of corporate employees and representatives from several of the company’s franchises. Always working to be responsive to the individual markets of the 14 corporate restaurants and 23 franchises (and growing), the menu committee keeps an eye on what works in the individual communities. The Wild Wing customers contribute with new menu inspiration as well through Battle of the Bone competitions. Similar to a bracket challenge, customers are asked for new wing sauce ideas. The field is narrowed to 16 contenders, and every week, two go head-to-head until winners are selected and added to the menu. Most recently, the Crazy Daisy, a barbeque-ish, spicy, sweet sauce and Honey Lime Sriracha sauce came out on top.
Wild Wing Café first opened on June 23, 1990, overlooking Hilton Head’s Coligny Plaza duck pond, expanding a couple of years later to their current location on Pope Avenue. Rumored to be first to bring live music to the party, along with their still-popular buckets of beer, this island classic is looking at 25 years in the rearview mirror, and the Crowleys, their devoted fans, friends, and their former and current employees, are ready to celebrate this milestone in a big way, culminating with a birthday bash on Sunday, June 21.
“We’re throwing a big party, naturally,” Bruderer said. A child of Wild Wing herself, Bruderer grew up on Hilton Head Island. “It would be the place that I would go with my friends to watch sports and hang out, eat some wings, and catch some awesome bands.” It’s in her blood.
The week leading up to the big party, there will be a wing eating contest, a throwback to the ’90s night, where friends of Wild Wing are encouraged to dress in ’90s-style and come out to enjoy a ’90s band; and the Friday before the birthday blast, a VIP customer appreciation party is planned. The weekend will culminate with a blow-out birthday party, featuring four bands, games, bounce houses, and more. In addition to Nashville’s Grammy-nominated Will Hoge, Hilton Head’s The Steppin’ Stones, and an act yet to be determined, the winner of South Carolina’s Red Hot and Rising Music Award, will be performing. The winner of this up-and-comer award will be announced the first week of June and will rock the Wild Wing Café birthday celebration.
Dianne, better known as Mama Chicken, and Cecil have worked together on every endeavor they have undertaken and have been equally committed to being a positive force in the community. “Particularly this community that has been so kind to us,” Dianne said. It’s nearly impossible to meet someone on Hilton Head who hasn’t worked at Wild Wing or known someone who has worked there. “We made some of our best friends on earth from the people who worked for us; some for 20-plus years. You wouldn’t believe the number of high school and college graduation invitations that we get from kids who worked for us. They say things like, “Thanks for sticking with me and helping me pay for college with the money that I made every summer.”
From the early days, the Crowleys have supported a broad range of local programs and events, from which they know their loyal customer base was formed. “We’ve always stayed close with the Island Rec Center and supported the things they do. The Boys & Girls Club is another one that we have felt close to,” Dianne said. Long-time sponsors of The Heritage and the Arnold Palmer Pass and the Hilton Head Island Celebrity Golf Tournament, Wild Wing Café can always be counted on to put the party on wheels as float participants in the island’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. “These are things that make Hilton Head great, and we have to stay behind them.”
Mama Chicken realizes just how far they have come. “Our first night was a learning experience. We had about six salad bowls and 250 people. It was crazy,” she said, “but we pulled it together. I don’t think Wild Wing could have started anywhere else. The people on Hilton Head, particularly in the ’90s, were just so laid back. They were patient with us when we first got started.”
Born at the beach, Wild Wings Café and the Crowleys have certainly found their sea legs and are ready to celebrate… crazy brilliant!