Interview: How Tricia & Griff Alker Started a Beef Jerky Business in the Azores

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Written by: | Last updated on February 29, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 27 minutes
This article is available in: en_US

In this interview, Tricia Alker explains how she moved from the US to the island of Pico in the Azores. She talks about how they had initially planned to start another business within the seafood industry, but life had other plans and they ended up starting Azores Jerky, a beef jerky company.

What motivated you to move from California to Pico island in the Azores?

In 1998 my husband was asked by a colleague/friend in California to help in a study of deep-water shrimp in the Azores, which was organized by the University of the Azores on Faial. He spent some time on Faial and Pico during that time and was really impressed with the area and the people.

The Alkers arriving in Portugal in 2008

Prior to this he had commercial fished all over the world, including in Hawaii, Fiji, Mexico, California, Indonesia and Thailand, and he found the waters of the Azores to be particularly spectacular.  While fishing for shrimp they instead found a deep-water stone crab, similar to Florida stone crab, which no one was commercializing, so he and his colleague had the idea to start a fishery and export business based around it.

Fast forward to 2008 when they received the permission to start up the activity, we came to Pico for a 4 month stint. They started the business here because the colleague was originally from this island and still had family and friends here. (Though in hindsight Faial would have been a better base for a fishing operation, as they have a better harbor, more fishing services and, at the time, more direct flights to Lisbon.)

I had never been to the Azores before and fell in love with Pico right away. After the first week I had to come up with a new word, because everywhere we went I kept saying “stunning”! 

Captain's Lake on Pico
Captain’s Lake on Pico

How did you navigate the process of establishing residency in Portugal? 

Neither my husband nor I are Portuguese, so this was something we knew we would have to work out. As I mentioned, the first year we were here for only about 4 months, and in the middle of that time my husband had work outside of Europe and I went to visit family in Italy (with our 1 ½ year old son), so that took care of the 3-month issue (at that time you just had to leave Portugal, though I have heard that maybe now you have to leave Europe for it to count?). 

Upon returning to the States we had a fortunate development – my father had applied for Italian citizenship through his grandparents, thinking he might like to retire there some day, and once he had it then I was able to apply for it, and to also apply for my son.  Once I had the Italian passport I was able to request residency through our local SEF office, and my husband was able to also apply, as he was married to a citizen of the European Union

That process was a little more involved and required a copy of a police report from our home town in California, as well as our marriage license. These documents had to be sent to a Portuguese consulate office in the States to be validated, which, unfortunately, the local SEF office on Pico did not tell us until we were already back on Pico with the documents here. Luckily, the SEF office in Horta on Faial island helped with that process from this end. Our initial permanent residency cards were vaild for five years, and then once renewed are good for another ten. 

Can you share the challenges you faced when buying a house in Pico?

We had a few different challenges, and actually almost lost the house twice! People could learn from our experience (and inexperience). The first challenge was that our bank on Pico would only approve a house loan with a co-signer, even after we presented our US IRS tax returns as proof of income (we still had a business running in the States).

Keep in mind that we bought our house in 2010/2011, when the lending recession was hitting Portugal and banks were becoming more cautious. That was frustrating, as we obviously did not have family or people we knew well enough to ask to take on that role.  We also did not work with a realtor because at that time there were no realtors on Pico! So we ended up dealing with the owner of the house directly, using a notary for the contracts.

In hindsight, a lawyer well-versed in housing law would have been a smart move, because there were things we did not understand that could be attached to the house and stay with the house, depending on when they occurred. Because we were buying the house directly from the owner, we first signed a contrato-promessa de compra e venda, which we understood to be a purchase contract.

This is where a lawyer (or realtor) would have helped, because we did not understand how/where to request the property record, to confirm the exact status of the property, and whether there were any mortgages or other liens (now we know, in the Conservatório at the city hall). We assumed that he could not legally sell the house without resolving any debts tied to it, but that is not the case in Portugal.

After we moved into the house and before we completed the final purchase contract, we received word from the local Finanças office, who alerted us to the fact that the previous owner, who was now living in Mozambique, had mounting debts in Finanças and because the house was technically still in his name, they were going to go after the house and put it up for auction to pay his debts! (This is the benefit of living in a small town, the wonderful woman at Finanças, who we did not know personally, knew of us and knew that we were in the process of buying the house, so she reached out to us when she realized there was going to be a problem. Needless to say, we are friends to this day!). 

Obviously, we had thought the house was ours through the first contract, not understanding the technicalities of the two different contracts. Long story short, we were able to renegotiate with the previous owner, put the house (officially) into our name and work out a solution to resolve the debts to avoid the house going to auction.  It was a close call and very stressful but we thought it was handled. We even benefited a little on the final purchase price from the renegotiations with the seller, after all our trouble. 

Fast forward five months and someone appeared at our door to affix an auction notice – again! We thought they must be mistaken, because all the seller’s debts linked to the house had been resolved and the house was in our name since the final contract signing, five months prior. However, after hiring a lawyer (this time), we found out that because one of the original debts against the house was unpaid child support involving a minor, the courts in Portugal allow that to stay open and linked to the house, even though it was no longer his.

What we didn’t know was that at the moment of putting the house in our name, we had to officially petition the court to remove the house from the suit levied by his ex-wife, and because we didn’t, her lawyer was able to open another “process” against the house, running up another debt. With the previous owner untouchable in Mozambique and in no way connected to the house any longer, the consensus was that her lawyer was exploiting the fact that there were new owners who would not want to lose their house. And the court allowed it!

In the end we did have to pay in order to avoid the house going to auction, but luckily it was not a large sum of money, and afterwards the courts ordered her lawyer to remove the house from their suit, which he reluctantly did. But it was amazing to us that this could happen, even after the house was in our name.  

How has the experience of raising your children in Pico compared to what you imagine it might have been like in California (or even in another part of Portugal)?

When we first came to Pico our son was 1 ½ years old, and then our daughter came along two years later. We knew from the first visit that Pico would be a fantastic place to raise the kids, with the wide-open spaces, beautiful nature, slower pace of life, and good schools. I was thrilled that we could offer them this childhood in a place where they could still be kids and could grow up bilingual.

Before coming here we lived in a small beach town in Southern California, which I liked a lot, but it was surrounded by… California! Lots of people, traffic, time spent in the car getting from A to B, everybody going in different directions, etc. Just being a smaller place with less of everything, you spend more time at home, and more time together.

I saw many of my friends with kids running from activity to activity, always in the car, rarely eating dinner together. Here the pace was slower and the nature and the forest parks were just stunning. We would usually be the only people there! Whereas in California the smallest playground would be packed with people. We were also able to buy a house with plenty of land, to have chickens, plant an orchard and grow some of our own food, which we would not have been able to do with them where we were in California. 

Raising the kids in Pico has made it easier for us to focus on the “family unit”, especially because we do not have any extended family (though this could be one of the challenges as well, since there have been times when the kids felt the void of not having cousins, aunts and uncles or grandparents close by, like their friends have). But I do believe that bringing them here helped create a deeper sibling relationship, and my kids have grown up as each other’s best friends. This is something I will always be thankful for. 

As far as schooling, the education they have received on Pico has been more challenging than what my husband and I remember from growing up in the States. I knew that their education system was different, with more focus early on for written projects, group work and essay exams, rather than multiple choice and standardized tests, and I feel like it has prepared them much better for working independently. They also had English classes built into their curriculum since kindergarten, albeit to a simpler level of grammar than they would have received in America, and they had French as well during grades 7-9 (larger schools allow kids to choose between Spanish, German or French, but our school, being smaller, only had French).  At home we speak English, but they feel equally comfortable in both, which was one of the goals of raising them in Pico. 

Of course, there are limitations on an island like Pico. I like to say that we have everything we need, just not everything we want. The main limitation in raising our kids here, aside from being far from family, was the lack of activities for them in certain areas, such as sports, mainly because there are not enough kids.

To give you an example, my son, who is 17, took the ferry yesterday to Faial island in order to practice basketball with a team, since there isn’t one for his age group on our island. My daughter plays volleyball in the main town 25 minutes away, because our town does not have a team. A bigger island like Terceira or São Miguel has everything we would have had in California, but then the schools are bigger, there are more people, and therefore, as the Azoreans like to say, more “confusão” (confusion).

Now that my kids are in the 9th and 12th grade I can see that going forward they could benefit from more than Pico can offer, which finds us turning our attention to the mainland for summer camps and, of course, getting ready for university.  But I will be forever grateful that they could experience their childhoods here, in a more protected environment, where they had the freedom to be kids.

What made you start a beef jerky business? 

Starting a beef jerky business was never the original plan. We had moved to Pico and started the crab fishing and exporting business (Pico Crab Company), ultimately sending live crab from Pico to all over Asia, Europe, Dubai, the UK and the US. We also had a HACCP-certified transformation facility, working with the crab claws and crab meat.  And then Covid hit and everything shut down.

During the lock down my husband started making beef jerky to have on the fishing boat once he started up again, since it was always something we enjoyed but could never find on Pico. We then began sharing it with friends, who really liked it and asked for more. Even when fishing started up again, the flights weren’t operating at full schedule to be able to export to Asia again, and the beef jerky was getting more and more attention, so we realized we could adapt our crab factory to product beef jerky. We did, and here we are today!

Aside from beef jerky, what other products have you struggled to find here?

When we first moved to Pico in 2008 the supermarkets were limited in fresh fruits and vegetables and international products. Now, however, we’ve seen a huge surge in all different kinds of foods, such as Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and more. There are also many more options for vegetarians, vegans, those with gluten intolerance, and much more focus on organic products. We also have access to more fresh produce, such as broccoli, asparagus and a variety of mushrooms, where as in 2008 our choices were mostly frozen or canned.

We still don’t have the variety of the mainland, but it’s much better than before. And you tend to eat more seasonally. As for other products, a year ago I would say that we missed bagels and good tortilla chips, for example, but now you can find those too! 

Pico is also really growing. I never thought we’d see a fast-food restaurant here – in fact it was one of the things I loved about raising the kids here – but now we have a Burger King. Although being islands, we will always have the “island shopping” phenomenon, where sometimes the boat hasn’t arrived from the mainland and the stores are low on certain products. Or you need that one specific ingredient and have to drive around the whole island looking for it!

What were some of the challenges you faced when setting up your beef jerky business and what has your overall experience as an entrepreneur in Portugal been like?

The main challenges as an entrepreneur in Portugal are understanding the legislation (though I did learn a lot of Portuguese that way), the bureaucracy and finding employees. There are so many different governing bodies involved in approving and licensing facilities and activities, it is hard to know who you need to talk to. And our experience was very challenging to try to do something different that they were not familiar with.

For example, with the crab claws we needed the veterinary service’s approval for our cooking and packaging process and facility, but we had to educate them first on the product and the process because they had never seen it before. It was the same thing with the beef jerky. I feel like if you are opening up a bakery or book store or something they are familiar with it would be a lot easier. The bureaucracy can really bog you down and frustrate you, especially for how long everything takes. We had a lot of challenges with the crab fishing and exporting, again because it was different and we were the only ones doing it.

Another example is that we tried for 3 years to get the veterinary services office in Lisbon to make the request to China to add a new species to the approved seafood list so we could start exporting that too, but we never could get anywhere. We went around and around for 3 years and finally gave up. It’s a shame because it blocked a whole new avenue of revenue, not just for us but the region as a whole, as others were fishing the same species. Unfortunately, that did not seem to motivate them.

Also, there is overlap between organizations, as to who can inspect your operations and decide if you are complying with the regulations or not, and sometimes they give conflicting reports. We would get one answer from one entity and a contradicting answer from another. It was hard to know if it was law or their opinion, and so we learned to ask for the legislation reference to confirm it ourselves. 

What were some of the key things you had to learn about Portuguese legislation when setting up your business?

I touched on this a little in my previous answer. There are definitely similarities to the US, specifically in terms of licenses, HACCP guidelines, etc. However, I wonder if in the US you can usually contact the entity that you need to deal with and get an answer right away.

As I mentioned in my previous answer, sometimes, it’s hard to know who to ask, because there are so many different entities that deal with different areas of business. For example, the entity that issues the license to own a business is not the same for your license to practice your specific activity, or for the license for use of the space. 

And, of course, the Portuguese and Azorean governments offer many different financial incentives for small businesses, but knowing where to find that information can be challenging too. (Luckily, in this case, there are small business incubators popping up in the Azores, specifically to help start-ups and provide this information.) 

Portuguese legislation can be very complex. It is often changing, and you will find that the current version of a certain legislation is often an alteration of a previous legislation, and that can also be an addition or alteration of an even earlier version. Sometimes you have to follow the trail back many versions within certain legislation, so it’s not always easy to find the information you are looking for.

The good news is that the governing bodies must supply the legislation behind their decisions (in the case of an inspection, for example), so you are able to find that legislation online and study it yourself. And you should! We had an issue where we were being told that some content on our label was incorrect and had to be changed.

However, for one reference they could not quote a specific point of legislation to support the ruling, and in another case we read the legislation ourselves and realized that it did not apply to our particular product, but other kinds of meat products. Both of these references were accepted after all, but if we had not confirmed the legislation ourselves it would have led to a costly reprint. And early on when we were building our facility we had asked for the legislation ahead of time, to build it to code, following the HACCP guidelines. That worked out well when, during inspection, we were able to better decipher the feedback, some of which was personal opinion of the inspector, but not required by law. 

In Portugal they definitely operate by the minutia of the law, so I highly recommend finding the legislation related to your activity and becoming well-versed in it. Keep in mind, though, that much of the legislation has existed for years, so with new activities or products that don’t clearly fall under the current legislation, it can create a gray area. In our case we have been able to work with the inspectors, sometimes educating them on our product and processes, and demonstrating how what we are doing fits within current legislation, even if it is not mentioned specifically. Also, in my opinion, it is most challenging when you are first starting out. Once you get established, like we are now, it’s easier. 

You are based in Pico, get your meat from Terceira, and export to mainland Portugal, among other places. How easy is it to do business between the islands and mainland Portugal?

It’s not very difficult, though our main challenges come in the form of logistics affected by the weather. Being the Azores, the weather often has an impact on receiving materials and shipping out orders.  When we were exporting live crab it was extremely stressful because the window was always tight to make all the connections, and if we missed a flight the whole load could die. That’s not a problem with the jerky, and it was definitely one of our considerations when we made the switch in our activity.

How have the locals in the Azores and mainland Portugal responded to beef jerky, given that it’s not a traditional snack in the region?

Overall, the response has been really positive, from the flavor to the healthy benefits to the practicality of it. That’s funny you ask, though, because we actually did a video, posted on our website, showing Azoreans trying our beef jerky for the first time. We imagined there would be many people who had never heard of it before, but who would like it, once they tried it (which is the case, happily).

As far as the Azores goes, it’s very common for people to have family in the States and Canada, and/or they have visited those places themselves, so they tend to know what it is. Or others have spent time in Africa and are familiar with biltong. I think on the mainland it must be similar because we get a lot of orders from there on our website.

Even the people who aren’t sure about it tend to like that the meat is from free-range, grass-fed cows and that it is a product of the Azores. The meat of the Azores is very well known!  And then, as I mentioned, things have really opened here in the Azores in terms of international foods, so I think more people are interested in trying new things.  

What advice would you give to other expatriates considering a move to the Azores?

There is a lot to consider! The Azores are truly amazing and beautiful and offer the chance to live in a place where you can experience the culture and traditions of the not-so-distant past, but still have modern comforts and amenities. It can really vary by island, so ideally you would have the chance to visit them and decide.  And I think it really depends on your phase of life and the type of expat experience you are looking for.

For example, we were a young family and I was happy to live in a place that was smaller and quieter, even though it lacked some of the services and action that I would have also enjoyed. The nature, the peace, the smaller schools and the affordable housing were great, even if we didn’t have so many restaurants or stores to choose from. 

However, to set up and run our fishing and export business, we probably would have had an easier time on Faial, Terceira or São Miguel.  If someone wants to move here to use the Azores as the “backdrop” to their retirement years, for example, then a place like Terceira or São Miguel might give them a larger international community to interact with, as well as give them more access to health care and services, as well as connections to the outside world, since most flights in and out of the Azores pass through Ponta Delgada.  

So, São Miguel is the most populated of the nine and acts as the main island, which means you have more options for everything. They also are used to more foreigners so there is a different level of service in the restaurants and stores, and most service people speak English. And there is amazing nature! My husband and I say that São Miguel does have it all. But it is also the most populated island, and of course whenever you have more people, you can have more problems. Another thing to consider is that the accent of the people of São Miguel is quite different from the other islands and the mainland, so a non-native speaker would find it more difficult to understand (in my experience). 

Terceira also has a good variety of restaurants and a mix of expats, in part due to the US Air Force base that is still open, albeit in a limited functioning capacity. But many people there speak English and are familiar with Americans. There is also a good hospital and clinics, as well as direct international flights, but without the traffic and larger population of São Miguel. 

Speaking of hospitals and health care, that is probably the biggest challenge to living in the Azores. If you are on São Miguel you have the main public hospital for the Region, as well as a private hospital and various clinics.  Most people from the other islands find themselves sent to either São Miguel or Terceira for specialty appointments, treatments and surgeries.  There is also a hospital on Faial island, whereas the other islands have health clinics with basic services, such as a family doctor.  Pregnant women from Pico, for example, must go to Faial (or Terceira or São Miguel), to have their baby. They are instructed to go a few weeks before their due date and wait for the birth (arranging a place to stay if they don’t have any family in the area).  It is also not unusual for people with more serious issues to be sent to Lisbon.

Thankfully, there are some private clinics opening on Pico that bring in specialists from the mainland, which gives us the chance to see someone a lot sooner. However, those appointments are paid for out of pocket (€50-€70 per visit, depending on the specialty).  Many people go this route due to the long waits that come with the public health care system (and they can be very long, unfortunately). There is private health insurance in Portugal, however it is geared more for people in São Miguel and the mainland where they accept insurance, unless you can travel to those places to use it. But the good news is that even when paid for out of pocket, the medical expenses seem to be much more affordable than in the States.

There are other differences and challenges to living in the Azores, simply because they are islands in the middle of the Atlantic! Such as the cost and time required to get back to see family in California, or for them to come visit. But as for having access to things, now a days you can get pretty much everything you need, as most websites in Portugal (and even some international ones) will ship to the Azores.

For the items that don’t ship here directly, we have a transportation company in Lisbon that is very reasonable, and we can have things shipped to them, to then come by boat. That is another difference – when things come by air you can get them in 2-3 days, but if it’s with CTT (the postal service) and by boat, you need to add on another 10 days (at least for Pico – São Miguel is probably faster). So it’s important to know how it’s coming, especially if you need it by a certain date!

There is much more I could touch on, after 15 years here! Like how things close for lunch and usually Saturday afternoon and all-day Sunday (except large supermarkets, chain stores or shopping malls), which actually helps you to slow down too, but requires a different level of organization and pre-thought than in the States. And how there is something relaxing about not having so many choices. But I will leave your readers with my thoughts about the language… Again, this will depend on what kind of expat experience you want, and which island you move to. The Azorean people are so welcoming, and the majority of life here is based around social gatherings – festivals, dinners, cultural events, and even just sitting and visiting with friends.

So if you are able to learn the language you will be able to make those connections and see the side of life in the Azores that is so sought after – the slowing down, taking time to talk with your neighbors, meeting friends at the café when you stop in for a coffee. Of course, I am also noticing more and more expats moving to Pico who are creating their own communities, which can be reassuring if you don’t speak the language. 

Portuguese is definitely very challenging to learn, but most people are very appreciative if you just try. There are also classes you can take, usually sponsored by the local government. For me it helped that I spoke Spanish and Italian first, and then I accompanied my kids as they started learning in school. I am still not fluent but I have learned not to be embarrassed if I make a mistake or have to ask someone to repeat themselves, and to not let that hold me back from opportunities – both socially and professionally.  

What’s next for you and Azores Jerky?

For us as a family we have a son getting ready to graduate in June, so that is going to be a big life change, especially since university usually means a move to the mainland.

For Azores Jerky, we just got back from Madeira, which we loved. We made some great relationships and will be launching our products in a few select locations there this month, which is exciting!  We are also looking to expand our locations on the mainland so our customers can have quicker access to Azores Jerky. We would love to see jerky become as familiar a snack in Portugal as it is in America! 

Written by

James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.