Virtual brands are plentiful now, as both brand-new concepts and pivots from existing companies to survive. The H.Wood Group, based in Los Angeles, has taken existing brands and transformed them to digital concepts while also creating new virtual brands. Oh, and they created a program to schedule and conduct COVID-19 tests.
“We really had to change who we are as a company. We went from 17 [dine-in] venues that all closed and now we’re just doing delivery. So that was obviously a big change,” said Brian Toll, co-founder of The H.Wood Group, a restaurant group that owns The Nice Guy, Delilah and several new virtual brands.
“We’ve pivoted where my brother is doctor, getting so many requests for COVID tests that he couldn't handle the volume and said, ‘Hey, I know you have all these employees that handle reservations, do you think you can help me set up some testing?’” Toll continued.
And that’s how The H.Wood Group became involved in scheduling COVID testing during the pandemic, keeping employees busy and their community organized.
What began with his brother’s request turned into a complete scheduling system, similar to the front-of-house reservation system, where they could send people to nurses onsite and process results. There are now seven employees working on this initiative full-time.
But The H.Wood Group didn’t stop selling and cooking food.
“We launched the barbecue concept called Slab a couple years ago that got a lot of buzz. Honestly, during COVID, we were able to really have that explode for a bunch of different reasons,” said co-founder John Terzian. “It was the type of food people were looking for that they couldn’t make at home.”
This set off a lightbulb in their heads.
Prior to COVID, The H.Wood Group didn’t have any fast-casual concepts. That changed once the pandemic swung into full gear and the group’s full-service restaurants were forced to shutter, which was the impetus behind all of the virtual brands.
As for their inspiration?
“We are very good at marketing and creating brand new ideas so we figured now would be the time to try it,” said Terzian
Building off the success of their restaurants, Toll and Terzian took elements from their popular menus and created brand new concepts.
Mama’s Guy is based on The Nice Guy, a full-service restaurant led by Chef David John and features “take-and-bake” lasagnas as well as already cooked Italian favorites made for delivery. Lilah’s is a fast-casual version of Delilah with traditional diner foods and American classics.
Lilah’s and Mama’s Guy use the kitchens of their parent restaurants, where pickup and delivery is stationed.
Additionally, two virtual concepts are completely new. Ela Ela is a Mediterranean cuisine-focused concept using local, California-grown products. And the upcoming Beautiful Foods will sell comfort vegan food.
Yes, The H.Wood Group already had a strong foundation with name recognition, but that didn’t mean that they had to invest any less in marketing, one of the most crucial aspects of a virtual brand with no storefront.
“On the marketing side, we did what we do best, and that’s create a brand and the logo and story behind everything. We couldn’t just call it Brian’s Pizza,” said Toll.
Part of that story and branding includes unique boxes and bags for each of the virtual concepts.
And rather than following the trend of influencers posting about brands or, the newest virtual-brand trend, pairing rappers with chicken concepts, The H.Wood Group launched fast-casual Lilah’s as a traditional drive-thru from the ‘50’s. Customers remain in their cars and the food is brought to them.
“The name of the game is the way you’re marketing and the way you’re separating yourself from everyone else in the market,” said Toll.
Harkening back to a time of traditional Americana while maintaining the 21st century coronavirus trend of a virtual brand, The H.Wood Group has found a way to survive during shut downs and carve a path for the future.
This is part of our Stories from the Front Lines series.
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