Call my (restaurant) agent

Dusty Knuckle bakery

Nick discovers a group of people without whom restaurants would not exist in the UK. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

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 idea of where to locate it. To whom do you turn to help you find the right solution?

The answer is to RPAS – not a Russian spy agency, but the 120-member group known as the Restaurant Property Advisors Society, an organisation that comprises specialists in hospitality acquisitions, leasing, licensing, rent reviews and business ratings across the UK.

Intrigued – this was the first time in all my years writing about restaurants that I had ever heard of this body – I chose three of its members and emailed them a string of questions.

The eldest is Richard Wassell, founder of twentyretail, his own company that specialises in retail and restaurant properties. I also asked Matt Ashman, head of restaurants in the UK for the international property agents Cushman & Wakefield, and Emma Matus, who spent ten years working as a restaurant agent before joining Shaftesbury to manage its restaurant portfolio in central London.

My first question related to how each had fallen into this profession, one that requires a knowledge of commerce and the property market as well as a healthy appetite.

Wassell was the first to reply. ‘I decided on property because that was the profession of a friend’s father. He seemed to know a lot of interesting people and he had a Daimler as his company car!’

Property was also Matus’s introduction, having studied real estate at university, although the foundations of her appetite were laid at home where her mother was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. Having left university when there were few vacancies, she followed a friend’s advice to focus on the restaurant side of the property business. ‘I approached all the top leasing agents and did not give up until one of them gave me a job.’

Ashman’s response was more touching. ‘Somewhat naively, I was looking for a role that would make my parents proud while working in a sector where I found the people fascinating.’

The criteria for success among restaurant agents seems to be a combination of gut feeling and experience, with the commercial details between the landlord and the prospective tenant left until the end of any transaction.

The first rule, according to all three, is the notion of matching what is going to be behind the restaurant’s front door with what lies outside it. In Ashman’s words, the offer has to be smart in Mayfair but it can be less so the further east in London the location is.

Then there is the approach of building from the bottom up. ‘This is why there are so many coffee shops but there is a growing appreciation today by many developers of just what a bakery can add to any location now’, emailed Wassell.

And it is here that experience comes in. In an industry that appeals to the young, it is the ability to spot an unproven but highly enthusiastic newcomer that can define any agent’s standing.

It is this quality that first took Wassell to Max Tobias and Rebecca Oliver. Childhood friends, they decided to pool their baking skills in Dusty Knuckle, a bakery that helps young Londoners get back on their feet. They have since graduated from a shipping container to a bakery in Dalston with a second about to open in Haringey. In their case it was Richard Wassell, who in Tobias’s words ‘reached out to us very early on when all we had was this shipping container to bake in’.

Matus can still recall her first meeting with the Israeli-born sister and brother Zoë 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, and we have gone on to open three more sites with them including The Blue Posts and the Barbary in Covent Garden.’

That London has been such a magnet for talent as well as, pre-Brexit, being such an attractive city in which to open a first site has also been a lure for these individuals. For Ashman, at an international agency, ‘leasing flagship sites is an incredible privilege of my job’. He hopes to have demonstrated this at King’s Cross, which, thanks to him, is now home to Caravan coffee, run by three New Zealanders, in a building that used to store grain; Sri Lankan hoppers in a modern office building; and Spanish tapas where coal was once unloaded. He will have the opportunity to do a similar job at a rejuvenated Battersea Power Station.

On top of all this there is the gradual amelioration of an area, ‘the incredible privilege of knowing you are slowly and methodically helping to sow the seeds to make somewhere really special’ in Ashman’s words. Wassell’s current preoccupation is on the Temple project in Leeds, where he is advising the Commercial Estates Group on the transformation of a previously run-down part of the city centre. ‘An exciting long-term project with a very experienced team’ is how Wassell describes it.

‘Extremely hard verging on the heart-breaking’ was Matus’s verdict on the past year but there has been a silver lining. ‘We have had the opportunity to get to know our tenants even better, especially the owner-run independent businesses that form the lifeblood of the West End’. For Ashman, the only one with young children, it is as though his ‘work and social life have been on a diet’ but his new modus vivendi of homeworking is not something he is prepared to give up.

Optimism is a trait shared by restaurateurs and their agents. All expect a return to normal levels of business once restrictions are lifted, Ashman even going so far as to anticipate a ‘return to the roaring twenties with latent demand returning restaurants to the top of affordable luxury. We deserve it!’

Wassell, who has experienced London’s evolution from nouvelle cuisine to designer burgers, had a fitting last word about the advantages of his work. ‘Hospitality buildings are designed for people to have fun in; not warehouses storing boxes or office buildings for people to work in. One final attraction is that serious meetings often end with trying a new dish over a bottle of burgundy.’