When Vincent McKevitt cobbled together a student loan, a bank loan and five credit cards, he started Tossed. Mel Flaherty discusses his vision of a cashless, health-conscious future.
Known in his teens as “Fat Vin”, the man behind the 27-strong chain of Tossed healthy eating bars has gone from salad dodger to super-fit salad purveyor.
Vincent McKevitt does one hour on a cross trainer every morning, replying to his emails and planning his working day at the same time. After that, he walks Dave, his constant companion who happens to be a pug-beagle cross (aka a puggle), before heading to one of his stores for a walk around. After that it’s off to The Greenhouse, Tossed’s London head office behind its Baker Street outlet for anything from food tasting to strategy planning; then back to one of the shops for lunch.
Afternoons are when he conducts most meetings and then in the evenings, he’s back to the gym again.
“It is massively important for anyone in an entrepreneurial business to stay fit and healthy, and to have downtime to think. There are a lot of fat dudes running healthy eating companies out there, and that is not cool,” he half-jokes.
Even when doing this interview, McKevitt is constantly jiggling about and stretching. There is Astroturf on the floor of his meeting room, but there is no chance of the grass growing under his feet.
He evidently likes to keep moving both physically and with his business. As well as being a pioneer in the healthy eating market with its made-to-order customisable food offer, Tossed has always been at the cutting edge operationally and McKevitt does not shy away from risks.
For instance, Tossed was the first made-on-site hospitality company to display nutritional information at all its sites and, more recently, it became the first hospitality business in Europe to go completely cashless in its high street stores, via the introduction of customer-operated tablets for ordering.
The latter project has consumed a lot of his time – two years in development and then rolling it out through 2016 and early this year. It also cost “hundreds of thousands, close to a million” and was not without its downsides.
“We did have a lot of guest resistance. In the beginning we put four tablets in and left tills as well and it didn’t get a lot of traction. People don’t like change,” McKevitt admits.
But, in what appears to be typical style, McKevitt didn’t let a little thing like a negative customer reaction get in the way of what he was confident was progress for the business.
“Our biggest strength is our biggest weakness – we do healthy, customisable food, made to order, which is slow and is a massive operational strain, especially when our business is essentially trying to serve most guests between noon and 2pm,” he explains. “This way we could get all our staff focussing on preparing and serving the food.”
The change led to some staff fallout, too, but McKevitt says the pain has been worth it. He can, but won’t quantify the effect it has had on the business, other than saying “it didn’t double sales overnight”, but he is very happy that he took the plunge.
All of the high street shops are now cashless and so are the six it has at Welcome Break motorway service stations. However, the landlords at the four Tossed outlets in shopping centres have so far resisted allowing the company to stop receiving cash payments.
The rollout of the cashless system led to what McKevitt describes as a “quite turbulent” time for Tossed. But he says the foundations for growth have now been put firmly in place and things are very settled; so the company is back on the expansion trail and is now working on becoming totally paperless.
Property to favour the renter
Even though new sites were not the focus last year, the company still opened four stores (three of its own and one with its franchise partner in Dubai, where there are now three Tossed outlets). Tossed has just agreed heads of terms to open two more stores in London – one of which will launch in Victoria in May or June and the other elsewhere in the capital later in the summer. McKevitt is also ready to pounce on the opportunities, site-wise, that he is certain will arise from the inevitable high street casualties caused by the combination of rising product costs, business rates and national minimum wage.
“In the past three years, the landlords have had it all their way, but in the next three years, the balance will go in favour of strong retailers and there will be some great opportunities,” he predicts.
He is not one to give too much away about future strategy (and is amazed at the number of competitors that do on their blogs), but he hints that these circumstances could be the catalyst for taking the brand into high streets around the country.
“Expansion used to be confined to pockets of central London but now there are opportunities everywhere and I am very excited,” McKevitt enthuses.
“Our Welcome Break sites and our outlet at Bluewater have been great in getting the brand into the regions.”
Eye for expansion
Tossed now has a number of tried and tested models that give it the flexibility to embrace a range of site opportunities.
The shopping centre model works with about 400sq ft and there are small high street sites that take around 1,000sq ft up to larger units with seating for 70.
McKevitt says he is constantly being approached by potential franchise partners about taking Tossed to other overseas territories and says the way working week and healthy eating trends now more closely mirror those in the UK increases the potential for the brand to succeed in Continental Europe, but nothing is imminent.
McKevitt won’t divulge much about the firm’s finances either, other than saying the firm is profitable, that group turnover will be more than £10m this year and that average spend per head is £6.75. However, he says that in terms of like-for-like sales, the shops are achieving “record days, left, right and centre”.
He has no concerns about the firm’s ability to fund its growth, there is plenty of equity in the business and he has strong bank support from Santander. Seven years ago, he sold a minority stake to Beringea, but bought that back with his management team in 2013. In summer 2015, the business sold 5.5% of the shares via crowdfunding. McKevitt says this was an excellent way of raising the profile of the business and of getting 700 brand advocates (that’s how many shareholders took advantage of the scheme) on board, but he would not go down that route again:
“I am very much in the driving seat and it takes a certain amount of pressure off. The business is still growing but one of the things I learned a while ago is that growing a business like this doesn’t happen overnight.”
He has come a long way from when he started up, He thought the first site would cost £40,000 to open, but it cost £100,000, which he scraped together using his student loan, another bank loan and about five credit cards. He originally planned to launch the business with a friend from university who “chickened out” when it came to “put up or shut up time”, but McKevitt is now pleased he has not had to share the fruits of his success.
His big idea to develop a salad bar concept as a city centre brand was originally sparked by his experience of supermarket salad bars while he was studying. His passion for a healthy living fuelled it further and the end result is something that has evolved massively since the launch of the first site in Paddington in 2005.
Tossed today has no grab-and-go products and 35% of its sales are from hot food, including its hot Tossed Pots and the Good Eggs and porridge in the mornings, which has made the business way less seasonal than when it started and also less reliant on lunchtime trade.
Healthy eating trends have also gone in his favour, as McKevitt foresaw, although he has been amazed by how his customer base has broadened.
“I initially thought, ‘great, my shops are going to be full of women!’, but we have never been about small portion size and, as a result, we have an even split of men and women.
“Also, it used to be that people hit healthy eating at about the age of 30 when their metabolism changed but now, particularly in the shopping centres, we get teenagers coming in for a salad or a wrap.”
He does not think the healthy eating space is overcrowded partly, he believes, because the public is wising up to what he says are the erroneous healthy food claims of some of his would-be competitors, who he says use words like ‘organic’ hoping that it will disguise the fact that many of their products are high calorie or full of sugar.
Humour is vital for chief tosser
McKevitt has a very clear vision of what Tossed is about and where it is going but also an open mind as to how it will get there.
He is prepared not to always take what would be the easiest route if he thinks a bumpy ride will have a better long-term result. He actually appears to relish doing things differently. The fact that last year Marketing Week listed the company as one of the 100 Disruptive Brands in the country (there were only four among that number in the food and drink sector), amuses and pleases him in equal measure.
Humour is important both to him and the business; those who prep the food are referred to as ‘tossers’ and he is ‘chief tosser’ for example. But he clearly takes the business very seriously and the self-discipline and commitment he puts into his exercise regime is more than matched by the effort he puts into his company. In fact, the two are inextricably linked.