This is Shana's story. Or rather, it's the story of Shana, her father, and a confluence of real-life events that inspired a Fool. It begins innocently enough with a proposition:

Shana's father has some money to invest but neither the time nor the expertise (or so he thinks) to take on the job himself. He does, however, have a secret weapon -- a daughter who works at The Motley Fool. Could we help a father out?

This is your life
Long story short, Shana and her father -- with me as watcher -- are going to invest some money. Over the next few months, we will gradually put $8,000 to work -- and here's the catch -- in a portfolio of stocks recommended in Motley Fool newsletters.

There's more to it, but before we go on, two quick but important points: First, this is a family affair between Shana and her father (we are not running money), and, second, you are not Shana's dad. What's right for his portfolio may be absolutely wrong for yours. Enough said. Now, let's roll.

No wing and a prayer
In a future column, you'll hear more about our journey through back issues, performance scorecards, CEO interview transcripts, online discussions, and a whole lot more. But first, Shana and her father bought a stock.

Have you been to Buffalo Wild Wings yet? The wings are dynamite, and they're popping up all over. Already, there are more than 250 locations nationwide. Yet with roughly 30% of existing locations in the company's home state of Ohio, there is plenty of room to grow into management's target of 1,000 restaurants.

Like most Hidden Gems, the company is cash-rich, with nearly $50 million on a balance sheet that is debt-free. As for growth, earnings roughly doubled last quarter on sales that came in 36% higher year over year. Management is another strength, guided by Chairman Kenneth Dahlberg, a great business success with a half-century of experience.

What we were thinking
We didn't settle on this wing bar lightly. We pored over notebooks of newsletter back issues, and we scoured the members-only websites. Frankly, we had a blast. I was surprised by one thing, however: how difficult it was to overcome inertia, to actually take the plunge to buy a recommended stock. But we did it.

Actually, Shana did -- choosing Buffalo Wild Wings from the Motley Fool Hidden Gems roster. This despite the stock's being up already more than 50% from its IPO in November 2003 and more than 25% since Tom first recommended it in July 2004. It helps, certainly, that Tom is convinced that it has plenty of room to run.

At this point, I should mention that Shana's dad was clear on one point: He was looking to build an aggressive stock portfolio. This put Tom Gardner and his Motley Fool Hidden Gems small-cap service right in the sweet spot -- for this particular investor. As I have argued in recent columns, many of tomorrow's big winners are smaller, underfollowed companies today.

Please take my advice
I've been in this business for years. I've heard my share of stock tips. This one guy was nuts for Harley-Davidson in the 1990s. I didn't buy. Big mistake. A thousand dollars in Harley in 1990 would buy you a new V-Rod today -- and two more as gifts for the kids. Sadly, I didn't buy any stocks recommended in the letters I worked on, and there have been some winners.

That all changed when we staked our claim in Buffalo Wild Wings at $34.49 per share. I should mention, too, that I have never bought a restaurant nor, come to think of it, even a retail stock myself -- though I write often about Peter Lynch and have always been a fan of his notion of the consumer as portfolio manager.

What gives? Well, like most investors coming up in the '90s, I was taken by new technologies and killer apps. I fretted right along with you over the comings and goings at Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW), Intel (NYSE:INTC), and Corning (NYSE:GLW), a company I thought made cookware. OK, that was a joke, but how well did I ever really understand Corning's business?

Meanwhile, I slept on great consumer brands like CircuitCity (NYSE:CC), which climbed 800% in value over the course of the '90s. Or mall rats Pacific Sunwear (NASDAQ:PSUN) and American Eagle Outfitters (NASDAQ:AEOS), both of which are up on the order of 2,000% since hitting the markets in the early '90s.

Ouch. I have a sneaking suspicion that Lynch loved all three of these stocks, especially early in their growth phases. I have much more than a hunch that there is money to be made in simple retail concepts. These are companies like CEC Entertainment (NYSE:CEC) -- a hidden gem that runs your neighborhood Chuck E. Cheese -- and companies like Buffalo Wild Wings.

What works for you
To find out, and to fill out Dad's portfolio, Shana and I are scouring the newsletters. Our goal is to make Dad some money, but already we are better investors for having combed the archives of half a dozen newsletter advisors. You'll hear more details of what we learned as our little experiment unfolds.

Meanwhile, Shana's dad is an aggressive investor. You may not be. For balance, both Shana and I have opened portfolios of our own -- hers conservative, mine somewhere in the middle. Your needs likely fall somewhere else altogether, but we expect there will be something here for almost everyone.

As for me, my predilection is for hidden treasures. Small-cap stocks off Wall Street's radar just seem suited to patient, longer-term investors. With the big guns on board, the markets in big daily traders are just too darn efficient. A Buffalo Wild Wings, on the other hand, can creep higher and have a lot of horse left when Wall Street (gradually) climbs on.

That's how I see it, at least.

What to do next?
In How to Beat a Choppy Market, I insist that with discipline, a certain knack, and a lot of hard work, you can beat the pros with individual stocks. As proof, I held up Motley Fool co-founder Tom Gardner, who is doing just that, handily, with his Motley Fool Hidden Gems.

Minus a few sneers from old pals in "the business," I was encouraged by the response to my defense of independent stock-pickers. As investors, you have a healthy respect for this rudderless market. More importantly, you are serious about the prospects of independent stock research and of using it to get -- in the words of Peter Lynch -- one up on Wall Street.

But you are right to wonder: Can you really make money using investment newsletters? Or, more specifically, can I? I say yes. But like all fair questions, this one is hard to answer with confidence and outright impossible to answer with back tests. Turns out, investing really is like life -- best experienced in real time. So, here we go.

Performance tracker
I promised to keep you posted on Tom Gardner's progress at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. As of March 15, 2005, Hidden Gems recommendations are up an average 36.3% vs. 10.1% for the S&P 500 over the same period. As always, all picks and results are posted on the Hidden Gems website (you can view it with a free trial).

If you want to learn more about Tom Gardner's approach to finding undervalued small-cap stocks, Tom offers a 30-day free trial to Hidden Gems. It really is a painless way to find out if a newsletter is right for you. Click here if you'd like to learn more.

This commentary was originally published on Dec. 3, 2004. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott owns none of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors and maintains strict trading guidelines for employees. See the Fool's disclosure policy here.