In 2014, childhood friends Max Tobias and Rebecca Oliver launched a bakery called the Dusty Knuckle — out of a shipping container. The idea was to start a business that would hire and train young offenders trying to get back on their feet. But the container was hot and restrictive; they barely had room to turn around. What they had needed was a restaurant agent, a little-known but critical player in the hospitality industry.

Imagine that you own a large property in central London; or that you are chief executive of an arts organisation; or that you have an idea for a café or a restaurant but no clue where to locate it. To whom do you turn for help? Oliver and Tobias hired Richard Wassell, founder of twentyretail, a company that specialises in retail and restaurants. “He reached out to us . . . when all we had was this shipping container to bake in,” says Tobias. Wassell helped Dusty Knuckle find a better, more permanent home in Dalston, east London.

In an industry that appeals to the young, it is the ability to spot an unproven but highly enthusiastic newcomer that can define an agent’s standing. It is this approach that first took Wassell to Dusty Knuckle. Soon they will open a second bakery and pizzeria in Green Lanes, Haringey.

Restaurant agents act as matchmakers, looking for a particular alchemy of neighbourhood, space and product. The largest organisation of agents in the UK is known as RPAS. It may sound like a Russian spy agency, but the initials stand for the Restaurant Property Advisors Society. The 120-member group comprises specialists in acquisitions, leasing, licensing, rent reviews and business rates across the UK. I asked a few members how they help people find their perfect match.

The first rule, according to the agents that I spoke to, is to match what is behind the restaurant’s front door with what is outside. In the words of Matt Ashman, head of restaurants in the UK for the international property agents Cushman & Wakefield, the offer has to be smart in Mayfair but it can be less so the further east you go.

Wassell emphasises that finding a space is not about square metres, but creative possibilities: “Hospitality buildings are designed for people to have fun in, not warehouses storing boxes or office buildings where people work.”

It helps if agents can dream up creative uses for spaces that were originally meant for other things. At King’s Cross, for example, Ashman found a home for Caravan, a chain of restaurants run by three New Zealanders, in a building that used to store grain; for Sri Lankan hoppers on the ground floor of a former office building; and for Spanish tapas where coal was once unloaded. He will have the opportunity to take on similar projects at a reinvented Battersea Power Station.

Emma Matus started her professional career at Shaftesbury Estate before becoming a restaurant agent, and has now returned to manage Shaftesbury’s restaurant portfolio in central London. She can still recall her first meeting with the Israeli-born sister and brother Zoe and Layo Paskin before they opened The Palomar in 2014. “They were so inspiring that I remember going back to the office to tell the team I thought they were going to be incredible,” she says. “And we have gone on to open three more sites with them.”

This year has not been kind to the hospitality industry or to restaurant agents. “Extremely hard, verging on the heartbreaking” is Matus’s verdict. But the agents that I spoke to were also optimistic, predicting a return to normal levels of business once all restrictions are lifted. Ashman says he anticipates that a craving for affordable luxury post-pandemic will herald a “return to the Roaring Twenties”. And he is eager to return to work in earnest, at a job where he has, he says, “the incredible privilege of knowing you are slowly and methodically helping to sow the seeds to make somewhere really special.”

More articles from Nicholas at ft.com/lander

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