Suzy Badaracco is passionate about patterns. She rakes through 50 to 65 newspapers a day and 38 magazines each month tracing movements in the food industry, and others that affect it, to get an all-round view. But a decade ago she spent her time looking for entirely different kinds of patterns – those of serial killers.
Badaracco started out as a drug toxicologist with the FBI thirteen years ago. She also trained with Scotland Yard in the UK and both taught her about chaos theory, the art and science of spotting trends in what can seem a tangled web of unrelated – or loosely related – events to the untrained eye.
Although the two disciplines may seem a world apart, Badaracco sees little difference between drug toxicology and trend forecasting for the food industry.
“For me, with drugs and baking, there’s no difference,” she said. “It’s just chemistry right?”
But only part of her training involved chemistry. Badaracco was an ante-mortem toxicologist, analyzing drugs from crime scenes in an effort to track them back to the street, and part of that involved forensic anthropology – serial killers’ crime scenes.
It was this part of her work that led to her training with the FBI and Scotland Yard. The part that most directly relates to her current work – running her trends forecasting firm, Culinary Tides – are the diagramming techniques she learned in relation to chaos theory.
When we meet in a bar in downtown Phoenix, she tells me she likes to keep a low profile, but she hardly has the air of an undercover agent. She is vivacious, stylishly dressed and extremely talkative, with bright wide eyes and a halo of wild, curly hair.
She shows me a range of unusual diagrams devised to make sense of consumer behaviors. They look a bit like backward mind maps crossed with flow charts and spider diagrams. And she tells me that some of them are her own design, specifically tailored to the needs of the food industry.
“The only problem I have in the industry is that no one else does this,” she said. “I don’t have any mentors so I still have to go back to my military contacts.”
Small scale and targeted
Her techniques seem to be working. She claims to have predicted the current trends for street food and South American cuisine well before they hit, and says there are clear signs that the booming gluten-free market is likely to slow (a prediction that stirred impassioned debate among readers of this website).
Right now, she has a waiting list and works on long-term contracts on a deliberately small scale. Every quarter she provides her clients with a new 12- to 18-month trend forecast, allowing them to act, rather than react, in whatever way they choose.
“They know whether to get in, get out, or what they want to do. I never tell a client what to do. I just tell them the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.
What’s more, she claims that her trends forecasts are always on target.
“I can look back in my data and every single one of them hits. I don’t open my mouth until I’m sure of where a trend is going or what it’s doing. So I’m very conservative. In the industry I’m not seen as conservative, I’m seen as the radical,” she said.
A perfect circle
Badaracco claims that it is her very particular background that has set her up so well for what she does. After five years in drug toxicology, she decided that she had had enough of the work’s intensity, so went back to school and studied to be a chef – and then went back and gained a Masters in nutrition.
“Being a dietitian, a chef and a toxicologist, I could cook a fabulous meal, poison you, get rid of the body and get away with it – a perfect circle,” she joked. “But honestly, without these three, I couldn’t do this work…It’s not just what people say about trends that’s important, it’s what they think. You need to have all the different languages that people are speaking.”
‘Control freaks hate chaos’
At the moment she enjoys being in control of every aspect of the business. She says that this trait helps her to spot trends among the chaos on the horizon because “control freaks hate chaos.” At the same time, Badaracco insists that her kind of trend forecasting has no room for big egos; the starting point must be an open mind rather than assumptions about the industry or consumers.
“If you have arrogance you can’t do this work because you are going to find patterns that don’t exist,” she said. “I don’t ever look for something because you are going to find something that isn’t there.”
As demand for her business grows however, she realizes that she may have to share the workload – and make her work more public.
It seems with some regret that she adds: “At some point I’m going to have to bring on protégés because otherwise I could be hit by a bus tomorrow and no one would know that I have even done this.”