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Mike Sunley is behind one of the capital's most successful catering businesses. He founded Lexington in 2002, with directors Katharine Lewis and Rachel Lindner, with a desire to form a business that put food and people right back at the heart of the organisation. Some 17 years later the business has become a reference for the term boutique caterer, with a sound reputation across London for delivery combined with craft.
Even following its acquisition by Elior in 2014, Sunley led the business alongside chairman Tim West, and it retained its identity as an agile and innovative caterer – despite it being allied to one of the giants of the industry. When it was acquired, Lexington was delivering an annual turnover of £33m with a pre-tax profit of £1.5m. Four years later, it recorded a 16.2% increase in turnover, reaching £47.3m.
That consistent growth is thanks in no small part to Sunley's commitment to innovation and industry-leading menu development. As he said in an interview in 2018: "Thinking back to the beginning, everything was less complex. What we were doing was ground-breaking. No one else was talking about ‘farm to plate', sustainability or employee wellbeing." Of course, these terms are likely to feature on most of today's tender documents, but in 2002, few caterers were talking about healthy eating, provenance or looking to outdo the high street.
But Sunley was always seeking to do things differently. His belief that business leaders should help support Britain's young talent and invest time to support future careers enabled the launch of the Lex School of Talent in 2011. Lexington's annual LexChef competition is now an established part of the caterer's calendar, pushing its chefs to be the best and most innovative they can be.
What is perhaps most striking about Sunley today is how successfully he has maintained Lexington's well-earned respect from its peers after its acquisition by Elior five years ago.
Lexington retains the spirit for which it has long been known, as well as most of its leadership team, including Lewis and Lindner, managing director Julia Edmonds and chef director Rob Kirby. And while it has clearly benefited from sharing back of house operations with its parent company, Lexington brings plenty to the table too.
Sunley's achievements are summed up by BaxterStorey's Simon Esner, who told The Caterer: "Mike was instrumental in founding the Lex School of Talent, which finds, develops and nurtures the careers of young people coming into the hospitality sector. He also set up the LexChef competition, which is now a permanent annual event that enhances the reputation of chefs and hospitality professionals across the industry. Mike has seen Lexington grow to the successful, people-focused business it is while also immersing himself in numerous charitable activities."
Having recently announced his decision to step down, the time is certainly right to recognise Sunley's significant contribution to the foodservice industry.
Wendy Bartlett Bartlett Mitchell
Simon Esner BaxterStorey
Phil Hooper Sodexo
Robyn & Tim Jones CH&Co Group
Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent
David Mulcahy Sodexo
This award was judged by The Caterer editorial team