‘Who buys a retail brand during Covid?’ The man who revived the Tossed salad chain

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<p><figcaption class=Neil Sebba: ‘I was walking around the city looking for new shops without a single person around. It was like 28 Days Later.’Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Neil Sebba, managing director of the healthy food chain Tossed, doesn’t take long when asked if he is a risk taker.

“Yes: who buys a brand in Covid in a completely dead market?” he says, reflecting on the decision he and co-owner Angelina Harrisson made to buy the business out of administration in September 2020.

Sitting at the Tossed branch on Victoria Street in central London during the lunch rush, Sebba tucks into a cauliflower and harissa salad, a combination he says he’s become addicted to.

The shop is the picture of a modern food outlet. Dance music is pumped through the brightly lit interior while customers choose their custom salads or wraps on touchscreens, which provide nutritional information on each selection.

It’s a scenario that seemed impossible four years ago, when Tossed was almost extinct. A casualty of Covid-19, the chain was dependent on the lunchtime office market, which was ended by lockdown. Within months of the coronavirus outbreak, it went into administration, closing its 14 stores and letting 260 employees go.

“Effectively, the music stops, and you’re thinking, do we have enough chairs to sit on?” He says. “I had to see if the business was viable, and then make everyone redundant and put the business into administration.”

It was a defining moment for Sebba, who joined Tossed in 2010, five years after entrepreneur Vincent McKevitt founded it.

His childhood was far from the heart of busy London Tossed: he grew up near the Suffolk village of Nayland. But trips to work with his father, the managing director of a property company, gave him a glimpse of life in the City, and he set his sights on a career in finance while at Warwick University.

After six years at accountancy firm BDO, he joined Cornerstone Corporate Finance, where he spent four years raising money for hospitality businesses, including Wagamama. “It frustrated me: you kept helping businesses write plans but you never got around to helping them execute,” says Sibba.

Undaunted, he took the biggest risk of his life. Months away from his wedding, he wrote to McKevitt, unsolicited, to offer his services. He resigned from Cornerstone and worked for nothing to raise money for Tossed on the condition that if he succeeded he would become finance director.

Everyone is drifting and you become very isolated; it was very lonely. It’s hard not to feel responsible

During Sebba’s nine years in charge of the numbers, after raising the money, Tossed grew to 32 stores, including franchise outlets, across the UK, and two in Dubai. With Harrisson, he started running the business.

And then Covid hit.

“It’s a strange situation. Everyone is drifting and you become very isolated; it was very lonely,” he says. “It’s hard not to be responsible, even though you obviously have no control over the Covid, but people are looking to you for answers.”

Tossed were not alone. A PwC analysis found that in 2021, 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared as a direct result of Covid-19.
Sebba was determined that the Tossed brand would survive. He called Harrisson, now brand director, and suggested a relaunch.

The pair scoured their contact books to raise £500,000, renegotiated leases and opened five stores in September 2020.

“We made the decision when there wasn’t even a vaccine: we were shooting blind,” he says.

By that winter, with the virus rampant, the pair doubled down, hunting for more stores. “London was covered in snow and I was walking around the city looking for new shops, with not one other person around. It was like that 28 Days Later situation,” he says.

The gamble paid off. Tossed now has 13 stores across London, offering salads marketed as “gym food”, hot curries and “big fat” Greek yoghurt. But Sebba is keen to emphasize the different environment in which he now works.

Firstly, the move towards hybrid operation means that there are far fewer people traveling into the city, especially on Mondays and Fridays.

Sebba pulls across her laptop to call up the latest data from Transport for London, which shows that on June 21, the number of tube journeys on Friday was 3.56m, down from 4.54m on the same date in 2019.

“We have fewer buying opportunities and you’re essentially trading for three and a half days a week,” says Sebba.

He also says there is some evidence that commuters are willing to spend more than before on the days they travel in. However, the cost of living crisis has necessitated more affordable options on menus: salads and non-custom wraps that now cost around £6 sit alongside their typical salads, which are priced at just under £10.

Meanwhile, costs kept putting pressure on its balance sheet. “You have inflationary pressures coming from food costs, inflation, living wage rates and electricity issues,” he says.

With downsizing, Sebba has built a Tossed delivery business, including a kitchen in Canary Wharf. He says that this deal has also been made available by companies that offer lunch to employees as a perk to bring them into the office.

To help make the business more efficient, Tossed now uses the Stint platform to hire casual staff for short periods to match headcount.

Stint works by offering people short shifts of two hours and more at retailers. In busy periods, when Tossed stores need 12 staff at the same time, a third of those could be recruited through the app.

“It’s allowing us to better match labor resources with demand,” says Sebba. “Without it, you’d be forced to make the economy work, because of how people are buying less frequently during the week.”

With Sebba’s changes, the economy is starting to work. It is expected to be profitable this year for the first time since it went into oblivion, after recording a loss of £500,000 last year. Revenue is expected to exceed £9m, up from £7.4m last year.

Sebba has his eyes on a branch outside of the central London lunch trade. “Our initial plan was to capture the core market of Central London and get the best sites we could,” he says. “We’re now looking at other opportunities and types of locations, whether it’s travel, tourism or food courts, something different to explore.”

Because of his record, don’t bet against him making this gamble work.


Age 45
Family Wife and two children, aged six and 10.
Education BSc from Warwick University.
Pay “Below the market, but it’s about the growth of the business.”
Last holiday Aberdyfi, Wales.
The best advice he has been given “Pause, breathe, think. If it still feels right, stop wasting time – go ahead and do it.”
Biggest career mistake “Not being quick to say ‘no’ to things you know aren’t right for you.”
A phrase he uses too much “Onwards and upwards.”
How to relax Cross-country running, yoga, family Sunday brunch or watching Ipswich Town.

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