Coffee has always been a part of Tio Fallen’s, MSE’07, life. But after moving to Houston, he worked remotely from a coffee shop nearly every day and got an education on the drink that he loved.
“I started to learn more about coffee as a ceremonial-type product. It connected me back to memories of being with my granddad on the front porch,” Fallen says. “I started to learn more about coffee-producing regions and how, depending on how it’s processed and where it’s from, that can impact the flavors and profiles of it.”
So Fallen and his wife, Kenzel, took a leap into entrepreneurship and started Three Keys Coffee in 2019. The brand’s name and logo are inspired by the valves on a trumpet — a favored instrument of jazz musicians around the world and the instrument Fallen has been playing since he was a child.
“It was 15 years of memories that I had,” Fallen says. “How do I make all these memories, all these experiences meaningful in my adult life?”
Fallen didn’t see anyone experimenting with the intersection of coffee and music. With coffee shops closing under COVID-19 restrictions, he was inspired to help bring the coffee shop experience to people’s homes.
“[I was] wanting to bring opportunities into the home where you could feel like you’re part of something. It’s transporting you into a space, allowing you to use that imagination and inspiring creativity,” Fallen says. “I think coffee was kind of missing that in a way. And I was able to kind of bring that aspect to and make it a little more approachable and something that people can connect with and resonate with.”
Each Three Keys Coffee roast includes a QR code to a personalized Spotify playlist, curated by Fallen himself.
“What I did was [I decide that] I’m going to create a coffee, like my Brazil Bossa Nova dark roast, and it’s going to represent the culture of Brazilian jazz, hence the name ‘bossa nova,’” Fallen says, which is a popular form of Brazilian music that combines samba and cool jazz. “And so, to complement that, I’m going to create a bossa nova-inspired Spotify playlist.”
Being restricted to home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic also afforded Fallen the opportunity to hone his craft and grow the business. He researched and experimented with different beans, connected with other roasters, and further developed the Three Keys Coffee brand.
Both owners still work full-time outside of Three Keys Coffee, Tio in the oil industry and Kenzel as a consultant in banking. Their mutual passion for great coffee grew from their mutual love of travel.
“We make it a point to immerse ourselves in culture. … I think through those experiences, because we’re in these [coffee shops], we’re creating memories of the culture and the atmosphere and translating that into the business,” Fallen says.
Kenzel is the CEO of Three Keys Coffee and Tio is the coffee director, which allows him to focus on sourcing beans and developing roasts and blends.
“You’re trying to create a sensory experience — flavor, aroma, mouth feel, all of that is what you’re trying to manipulate when you’re roasting coffee. So for me, the vision for the program is what do I want that to look like, and how do I create it?” he says.
For the first three years, Three Keys Coffee was strictly roasting for retail, small businesses that carry their coffee, and their online store.
“We built our following, our customer base, through the actual crafting and creating of coffee,” says Fallen.
Fallen was roasting in a commercial kitchen in a church basement when he heard of the opportunity to get a stall in Finn Hall, a food hall in downtown Houston, and Three Keys Coffee opened their establishment in 2023. They’ve been named the Best Coffee Roaster in Texas by Food and Wine.
Fallen says roasting is both an art and a science, but he uses his engineering degree from U-M to perfect his coffee roasting.
“For me, I can use data, graphs, charts, and information to increase my can increase my ability to create a consistent product. That is where the engineering part comes in,” he says. “But there’s still that sensory or artisanal side of it that’s more about the creativity, behind the roast or roasting coffee and having a feel for how it’s behaving and how you want to manipulate the roast.”
Fallen found U-M through the Summer Research Opportunity Program during his junior year of undergrad. He loved being on campus and pursued his master’s in mechanical engineering in Ann Arbor.
“It was a great, great experience. I love the University. Even though I didn’t go for undergrad, that grad experience was very special and opened so many opportunities and pathways for me,” he says. “That’s why, with the shop, there’s little homages to the Maize and Blue.”
Behind the counter, there’s a winged football helmet, a U-M football book on display, and Three Keys Coffee merch in maize and blue. Three Keys Coffee welcomed U-M fans to Houston for the College Football Playoffs national championship game with a cinnamon block M on drinks.
“I put that helmet up specifically for [the National Championship] weekend as well as the Michigan football book,” Fallen says. “But everything else has been incorporated into our branding since day one.”