‘Who Buys a Retail Brand During Covid?’ The Man Who Revitalized the Salad Chain

<span>Neil Sebba: ‘I walked around town looking for new shops and there was not a single person in sight. It felt like 28 days later.’</span><span>Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/9LqHVJK.OX20XNxTKIIX9A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/2b0135084102aadefa9d7cd913a5f5ba” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/9LqHVJK.OX20XNxTKIIX9A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/2b0135084102aadefa9d7cd913a5f5ba”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Neil Sebba: ‘I walked around town looking for new stores and there wasn’t a single person in sight. It was like 28 Day Later.’Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Neil Sebba, CEO of health food chain Tossed, doesn’t spend much time wondering whether he’s a risk taker.

“Yeah, who buys a brand in Covid times in a market that is completely dead?” he says, reflecting on the decision he and co-owner Angelina Harrisson made to take the company out of bankruptcy in September 2020.

Sitting in the lunchtime rush at Tossed’s Victoria Street branch in central London, Sebba is tucking into a cauliflower and harissa salad. He says he’s become addicted to the combination.

The store is the picture of a modern food outlet. Dance music fills the brightly lit interior as customers select their custom salads or wraps on touchscreens, which provide nutritional information about each selection.

It’s a feat that seemed impossible four years ago, when Tossed nearly disappeared. A victim of Covid-19, the chain relied on the office lunch market, which was wiped out by lockdowns. Within months of the coronavirus outbreak, the company had gone bankrupt, closing its 14 stores and laying off 260 employees.

“Effectively the music stopped and you’re like, ‘Do we have enough chairs to sit on?’” he says. “I had to see if the business was viable and then fire everyone and put the business into receivership.”

It proved to be a defining moment for Sebba, who joined Tossed in 2010, five years after the company was founded by entrepreneur Vincent McKevitt.

His childhood was a world away from Tossed’s busy central London heart: he grew up near the Suffolk village of Nayland. But commutes with his father, a property management company director, gave him a glimpse of city life and he set his sights on a career in finance while studying at Warwick University.

After six years at accounting firm BDO, he moved to Cornerstone Corporate Finance, where he spent four years raising money for hospitality companies, including Wagamama. “I was frustrated: you were always helping companies write plans, but you could never help them execute them,” says Sebba.

Disillusioned, he took the biggest risk of his life. Months before his wedding, he wrote unsolicited to McKevitt offering his services. He quit Cornerstone and worked for free to raise money for Tossed, on the condition that if he was successful, he would become CFO.

Everyone is on furlough and you get very isolated; it was very lonely. It’s hard not to feel responsible

During Sebba’s nine years in charge of figures, after raising the money, Tossed grew to 32 stores, including franchises, in the UK and two in Dubai. Together with Harrisson, he effectively began running the business.

And then came Covid.

“It’s a strange situation. Everyone’s on furlough and you get very isolated; it’s been very lonely,” he says. “It’s hard not to feel responsible, even though you clearly have no control over Covid, but there are people looking to you for answers.”

Tossed wasn’t alone. A 2021 PwC analysis found that 17,500 retail chains disappeared as a direct result of Covid-19.
Sebba was determined that the Tossed brand would survive. He called Harrisson, now brand director, and proposed a relaunch.

The duo dug into their relationship 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 yet: we were going to shoot blindly,” he says.

By that winter, with the virus raging, the couple doubled down on their quest to open more stores. “The snow was blanketing London and I was walking around the city looking for new stores, with not a single other person around. It was like a 28 days later “It’s a very different scenario,” he says.

The gamble paid off. Tossed now has 13 stores in London, selling salads marketed as “gym food,” hot curries and “big fat Greek” yogurts. But Sebba is keen to stress the different environment it now operates in.

Firstly, the switch to hybrid working means that far fewer people travel to the city, especially on Mondays and Fridays.

Sebba pulls out his laptop to pull up the latest data from Transport for London, which shows that 3.56 million people travelled on the Tube on Fridays on 21 June, down from 4.54 million on the same date in 2019.

“We have fewer purchasing options and you basically trade three and a half days a week,” says Sebba.

He adds that there is some evidence that commuters are prepared to spend more than before on the days they do travel. However, the cost of living crisis has made it necessary to put more affordable options on menus: uncustomised salads and wraps, which cost around £6, now sit alongside typical salads, which cost just under £10.

Meanwhile, costs have added pressure to the balance sheet. “You have inflationary pressures from food costs, inflation, living wages and electricity,” he says.

As footfall has declined, Sebba has built up Tossed’s delivery business, including a kitchen in Canary Wharf. He says this market has also been bolstered by companies offering their employees lunch as a perk to get them into the office.

To make the company more efficient, Tossed now uses the Stint platform to hire temporary staff for short periods, tailored to the number of visitors.

Stint works by offering people short shifts of two hours or more at retailers. During busy periods, when Tossed stores need 12 staff at a time, a third of them can be recruited via the app.

“It allows us to better match labor to demand,” Sebba says. “Without this, it would be difficult to make the economy work because people are buying less frequently during the week.”

With Sebba’s changes, the economy is starting to work. It expects to be profitable this year for the first time since it went bust, after a loss of £500,000 last year. Turnover is expected to be more than £9m, up from £7.4m last year.

Sebba has set his sights on expanding beyond the lunchtime trade in central London. “Our original plan was to capture the core market in central London and get the best locations we could,” he says. “We’re now looking at other opportunities and types of locations, whether it’s travel, tourism, food courts, something else to explore.”

Given his track record, don’t assume this gamble won’t work.


Age 45
Family Woman and two children, aged six and ten.
Education BSc from the University of Warwick.
Pay “Below market price, but it’s all about growing the business.”
Last holiday Aberdyfi, Wales.
The best advice he ever received “Pause, breathe, think. If it still feels good, stop wasting time – get going and do it.”
Biggest career mistake “Don’t be quick to say ‘no’ to things you know aren’t for you.”
Sentence he uses too often “Onward and upward.”
How he relaxes Running, yoga, a Sunday brunch with the family or watching an Ipswich Town game.

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