My guest today is Tio Fallen, an award-winning roaster and co-founder of Three Keys Coffee in Houston, Texas. This isn’t my first time talking with Tio: He was the October featured roaster for another project I work on, Matchbook, where we pursue unique coffee experiences with roasters from across the nation. Our prior conversation had this really jovial vibe, so I asked him if he would be a guest on this show.
The name “Three Keys” refers to the three valves on a trumpet, an instrument Tio grew up playing. Music is featured prominently in his brand—many of the coffees come with playlists, and he uses flavor notes the same way you’d think about musical notes. Three Keys, which he founded with his wife, Kenzel, is deeply personal and a reflection of Tio and his family, but it’s also open to interpretation, which is where this episode gets sticky and weird and really interesting. As we talk about the relationship between coffee and music, we dive into uncharted territory about what it means for a business, an idea, to be embedded within you. It’s something I think about with Boss Barista: Where do I end and where does this thing—this podcast, this platform—begin?
It’s hard to pin down just one theme to this episode, but if you’ve ever thought about opening your own business and the emotional rollercoaster it involves, I hope you learn a lot from listening. Here’s Tio.
Ashley: Tio, I was wondering if you could start just by introducing yourself.
Tio: Hello, I'm Tio Fallen; I'm the co-founder and roaster at Three Keys Coffee here in Houston, Texas.
Ashley: How did you get into coffee?
Tio: That's a good question. I think it was a series of events, right? You know, starting with just being very passionate, being a coffee enthusiast.
I used to travel a lot, and one of the things that really intrigued me about going to various countries was to enjoy or take in their coffee scene. So like, going to coffeehouses or small cafes and really getting the idea of that particular region’s expression of coffee.
I would say some other sequence of events that kind of tied into it or were at play included randomly finding out that coffee roasting was a thing—or isn't. [Laughs]
I was in a watchmaking class. It came about that a co-worker of mine, he was part of this watch club in Houston—and they have these weekend sessions where they invite people in and you get these vintage pocket watches, and then part of the class is tearing them down, dismantling all the parts, and then putting it back together. So in and of itself, that part is really cool and brings out the nerdy side of me.
But the icebreaker for the event, one of the guys was talking and he was like, “Yeah, in my free time I home roast.” And I was like, “Oh, snap. You can really do that? That's a thing?”
And he's like, “Yeah, yeah! I get beans and store 'em.” And so we just had this little conversation about it, but like, that was a lightbulb moment for me.
I guess the final inspiration, or something that pushed me over the hump to say, “Let me try my hands at this. And you know, if I fail, whatever, but I want to try,” was actually the passing of my grandfather.
During this funeral, I'm just sitting there just hearing all these people, people came in from all over and people are just reflecting back on his influence in their lives.
But what I did think was, “How—if I left this world tomorrow or next year, what would be my legacy? How could I make a mark on the world in a positive way through something that I love?” Obviously he had his passion and his love—what's my passion, what is it that I love and that I can share?
And for me, coffee was that answer: something that I love, that I think I can do really well and that I can share with people. So that's kind of how we get to where we are now with Three Keys.
Ashley: I love that you were able to put all of those different puzzle pieces together. It seemed it was a passion project, but also this moment for you where you had to reflect on, “What direction is my life going?” which often happens during loss. It all fits together.
Tio: Yeah, it really is, like you said, pieces of a puzzle or connecting dots. Even as I was thinking about what the brand could be, I really leaned into and tapped into my life experiences.
Thinking about the influence of my grandfather and him being the reason why I started playing trumpet in the first place—and the fact that I played trumpet from elementary school all the way up through college—that was a big piece of me. That was my passion before coffee.
I was heavy into music and heavy into being the best trumpet player I could be. The reason why I stopped is more so of a fork in the road of, like, “All right, you're in college, you didn't go to college to major in music. You went to college to major in engineering because you liked math and science, but you're struggling.”
You know, you have a choice to make. I thought at the time, the more responsible thing to do was to say, “Hey, I'm just gonna focus on getting my degree and getting a good GPA or what have you, and focus on establishing a career in engineering.”
In doing that, I had to put away that piece of me. But I felt like, as I was thinking about coffee and how I could share my expression of coffee to the wider audience, I could leverage that personal experience, that unique experience—that's not unique to me, but it's my story—and I could tell it through coffee.
That's how the name Three Keys came about, being that it's the three keys of the trumpet. Being a teenager, idolizing folks like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, I felt like there was a story that could be told there as well, through a genre of music that is widely accepted and widely appreciated as the essence of improvisation, originality, and the artistic and creativeness that is jazz.
All of that to me is something that can be expressed through coffee. [Laugh] And as far out as that sounds—
Ashley: No, it doesn't sound far out at all.
Tio: I just felt like there were parallels there.
Ashley: There's something really interesting about what you were saying before, about this moment in your life when you were in college and you have this thing that you've been doing for so long—playing trumpet and exploring music—and then you have this other pathway and you almost had to shelve one of them to pursue the other, which feels like such a linear way we're taught to approach life.
It seems like, as you got older, you were like, “No, there's these parts of me that are important. Just because I don't have to express them as like, ‘I'm a trumpet player, so I'm gonna be a trumpet player.’ It's like, ‘No, I'm a trumpet player. I'm a person who loves music. Let me find another way to harness this,’” which is not something that I think we're taught as children, or even as young adults, to do.
It's really interesting that you were able to take this thing that was so much part of your life and find a new way to translate it.
Tio: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you hit the nail on the head.
We’re sort of given this linear approach to what your pathway should be. It's like, “Go to school, get an education, pick a career, establish that career, and there you go,” that's your life, right?
But life is so beautiful and nuanced that you can make of it what you want and just tap into and draw from those experiences—your life experiences—and create your own path.
I just think about the saying, “the road less traveled,” and sayings like that where there's no cookie-cutter approach to what your end results should be. I just think about how it took a while for me to realize that I could do both.
Ashley: It seems like with Three Keys, you found this way to take things off a shelf that had been shelved and say, “They can live a new life.” Like they can be something else, so they can exist in this [new] way that still feels true to you, that's part of you, but without being so, “Oh, I love music. I have to play music to express that.”
It's like, “No, I love music, and I find commonalities between coffee and music and my personal understanding of both and I’ve found this new life and this new way.”
So just to give people a timeline of your life—just because we've been jumping around a lot and incorporating all these different aspects of your past and your present and even a little bit of your future—before you started making coffee or before you started roasting, you were an engineer.
Tio: Yeah—still am.
Ashley: Talk about that! Talk about what your days look like, or—what your whole life looks like is a very general, very big question. But what does a day in the life of Tio Fallen look like?
Tio: It's pretty intense. Day in the life: Wake up around 6, 6:30. So let’s rewind that a little bit.
It's like, Tio went to school to become a mechanical engineer and took a strong interest in energy conversion. Like, how do you take something and convert that into energy so that we can do things? So I looked at all forms of energy, oil and gas, solar, wind, fuel cell technology—various forms of energy or ways to produce energy. What I would say is that how I ended up in oil and gas was really just a function of where technology was at the time. And granted, I’m old as fuck, I’m 38. [Laughs]
Ashley: Shut up, stop it. You're not that old. [Laughs] I'm 34. We're hanging out in the same area.
Tio: We're in that age where we have an appreciation for life before crazy technology that it is today. I still remember pay phones and pagers and…
Ashley: I was just watching—have you ever seen the show “The I.T. Crowd”?
Tio: No. No.
Ashley: I feel like you would really like it. But it's a British show and in one of the episodes, one of the characters gets a new phone and it's a Nokia phone with like, four [pixels] on it. It's black and white. And I was like, “I remember those.”
Tio: Hell yeah, my first phone was the Nokia, me too. And then those awful ringtones—I remember all of that. I remember like, that transitioning to [AOL] Messenger, when Facebook first came out, all that stuff.
So anyhow, long story short—coffee, especially during the time of COVID and putting together my own business, that was the outlet, that was the opportunity for Tio to be more of who I want to be as a person and how I want to operate on a day-to-day basis.
The other piece of that pie is [coffee is like] a little bit of therapy. It's so, so therapeutic for me to be able to turn off that other part of me, whether it's at 4 p.m. on a Monday and then just turn onto coffee and be able to enjoy creating and doing something that I really love and care about. I can just be more intentional and communicative with people.
So I think I forgot the question, but I think that's fine. [Laugh]
Ashley: It's always fun to see where people take things anyway, like where people's minds go when they hear a question and try to figure out what's the thing that they wanna talk about. I'm always interested when people take a question beyond the scope of what I had imagined it to be, because it's really exciting for people—I don't know. I love it when people ask questions and it makes you think of something else [Laugh] which is really exciting. I don't know. That's just me nerding out on that kind of stuff.
It's funny that you mentioned therapy and using coffee as a form of therapy because you're the second person who's been on the show who has said that—the first person is Maggy Nyamumbo, who owns Kahawa … oh, I forget the…
Ashley: 1893! OK good, I was like, “I know it’s in my brain.” But the way that she talks about coffee is a very therapeutic response, which is really interesting because I don't think I've ever thought about that—not just the process of coffee, I can imagine sitting at the roaster and allowing your senses to really take over is very therapeutic.
It's almost like your brain is turning off and a primal form of thinking takes over. But then at the same time, there's also this very tactile experience of, “I am making a thing that is physically in my hands that I'm serving to people.”
Tio: Yeah. I would say that the ability to create something or to make something is so therapeutic for me, and the fact that I can do it in a short amount of time. It only takes me like, 20 minutes? 20 minutes.
Whereas my day job, I'm working projects, and sometimes it takes six months, eight months for something to materialize, for me to feel a sense of accomplishment or achievement. Whereas when making coffee, I know within 15 minutes whether I'll be proud of it or not. I can theorize within 15 minutes whether I'm proud of it.
But there's also just the little things. I'll tell you—green sorting is so therapeutic for me. Being able to just turn off my brain and just … it's like those little workbooks you have as a kid. It's like, Where's Waldo. You're looking for the outlier in a picture with a thousand different things.
Green sort is kind of like that—you have a table full of just perfectly processed beans or a hodgepodge or whatnot, and you're just looking for some that stick out and just that, doing that, is a sense of therapy.
We green sort everything. Even on the roasted side of [coffee], I'll do a sort. I'll look for quakers [beans that never get roasted and look pale and smell like peanut] and [chipped beans]. I don't know if that's an OCD sort of thing, but for me, I can mentally be in a different space and really focus on sorting and it's so easy. It doesn't require a whole lot of caloric brain power. [Laugh] Yeah, just hone in on it.
Ashley: I wonder for you—I had a conversation with somebody recently.
So I do yoga pretty much every day, at least for a little bit. I think that for me, when I'm most successful at yoga is when I'm only thinking about the sensations in my body. I'm not thinking about like, “What does this look like?” I'm not thinking about the world around me. I enter a flow state. They're like those seconds, long moments where I am totally focused on the thing that I'm doing and how it makes me feel versus all of the exterior surrounding, for a lack of a better word.
I wonder if that's a sensation that you feel. Do you look for those moments of being in tune with a different sense of yourself?
Tio: I do. Like you said, it's so much a distraction that when you're able to—when you're able to block that out and really … and even the distractions in your brain, because your mind is racing, like, “Oh, I got this going on…” So when you have that ability to cast all of that out and really silence all of that and have just this, like you said, this flow state where you're just existing in the moment, you're not anxious about what's to come and you're not regretting what happened previously, but you're existing in the moment and you're breathing and you're enjoying that breath, that breath of air that you take or you acknowledge, you acknowledge that breath of air that you take.
Those are peaceful moments that I try to exist in. [Laughs]
Ashley: I wonder with Three Keys, and this is something that I struggle with too—Three Keys is so you, it is a reflection of your past, it is a reflection of the things that you're interested in.
It exists, and I mean this as both a compliment and also a critical thing to extrapolate on, but Three Keys could not come from anybody else. Tio Fallen made Three Keys and it exists as a thing that you've made. I wonder how that feels for you sometimes? Do you ever feel like you're on display? Do you ever feel like there's too much of me in this? Like I need to step back?
Tio: Yeah. I do feel like I definitely fight being on display. I've had philosophical conversations with Kenzel about like, how much of ourselves do we put on display in this? She reminds me that part of our story, what makes us unique is the personal touch.
The whole idea of connecting with people is about literally connecting with people, being—what's the word I'm looking for? Vulnerable. Showing like, “Hey, this ain't easy.”
Sometimes we're roasting and I have my kid with me, and he's tired and ready to go. But part of what you see at Three Keys is you're seeing a dedication, you're seeing a dedicated father that also is a dedicated roaster that is also encompassed in a brand that is a reflection of a life experience. And that absolutely is very intentional. I knew that for Three Keys to exist, I wanted to break the mold of what I felt like third-wave coffee had become.
Ashley: Yeah—I wanna hear more about that. Tell me what you were seeing and how you wanted to break that.
Tio: I felt like, with third-wave coffee, what I was seeing was coffee presented through fictional narratives, like a brand based on something that you would find in [Laughs]—I dunno, I'm having trouble articulating this, but things that are like, what does this exist in? Does this exist in a Moby Dick book?
Ashley: I see what you're saying. It's like, very precious language. Sometimes what really bothers me—this is really stupid—but when people use like the royal “we”1 in their marketing, for some reason, I dunno why that bothers me, but it's like, who are you talking about? Who is this? Not to say that I need to know about every single person at your business, or even if you want some of that distance, I totally understand. I think there's very twee—I don't know if that's even the right word for it, but there's this very twee interpretation of a very precious approach to coffee.
Tio: Yeah. I have very conflicted feelings about Starbucks, right? Part of me is like, I appreciate how Starbucks pushed coffee forward. But I felt like one thing that happened with Starbucks and that success is that people are trying to replicate that.
Again, going to these fictional representations, I think the Starbucks logo is some freaking ocean. [Laughs] I don't know what the heck it is.
Ashley: It's an ocean mermaid, yeah.
Tio: Ocean mermaid. Like, that's the branding for the coffee. I felt like since then, a lot of third-wave brands became these sort of fictional representations, and yeah, it's hard to identify with that.
Whereas Three Keys is very abstract because you can have miscellaneous interpretations of what Three Keys are like: the Three Keys to success or Three Keys as three pillars of … just things like that. Whereas literally I was just thinking about the valves on my trumpet. But until that next layer down, it's very intentional that this is supposed to be art-inspired, music-inspired, and [fueled by] ingenuity.
Like that's me: the three key valves on the trumpet plus the three pillars of what we stand for. It's a very true story. It is like literally an autobiography of you, of me, told through coffee. So that's why it is difficult for me to sort of disconnect myself from it and let Three Keys stand alone, as much I'd love to.
One day maybe Three Keys grows to stand separate from me or Kenzel or our family. But I'm also the force suppressing that from happening [Laugh], if that makes sense.
Ashley: Well, there's a couple of ways to interpret that. Number one, I wanna go backwards on what you were saying about Starbucks, just because I went to the Starbucks website—or, not the Starbucks website, this is not a Starbucks website. But according to this website, I'm on a website called Mermaids of Earth [Laughs] and it says that “when the Starbucks coffee chain was being started in 1971”—I'm reading from the website—“the owners wanted to ‘evoke the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of early coffee traders,’” which I get. That makes sense. Especially when you think about what Starbucks was in the early 1970s, which was just roasting [and selling] coffee beans.
Now there's really no connection to that. I have to imagine that's because of growth and because of the changes that Starbucks went through, now they serve actual coffee drinks.
But then I think about what you're saying, about Three Keys and how that is literally an autobiography of you, but because the term “three keys” is kind of ambiguous, it can be taken into other directions. So when I was thinking about what you were saying—that maybe in the future, it'll be a little bit disentangled from you and Kenzel and your family—in a way, that's good too, because at some point you're gonna hire people, probably. Maybe you won't, I don't know. But at some point other people are going to be able to shape the vision and the ideas of Three Keys and you want that to exist too, where their visions can have room to grow.
Tio: Yeah. That is the facts, as the kids say, that is factual statement. I think that's gonna be, I won't say struggle. I will say that's gonna be our biggest challenge as we continue to grow.
When it's your passion project and you think of it like, this is my baby. It's hard to allow other creative visionaries to influence that. I think that's just gonna take a little bit of opening up for Kenzel and me. And I think we can do it. We have the capability to do it. That's not beyond our personal disposition that we can't open up and let others in and let that influence take shape. But man, that would be so hard.
Ashley: It's hard, but it's also like … I don't know. I think about this a lot when—
Tio: I'll say this.
Ashley: Yeah. Go for it.
Tio: I'm a big fan of Ralph Lauren, okay. You think of Ralph Lauren: He's built this entire empire and he's still the face of it. But there were a couple years where he gave up his like CEO or chairman or whatever, and brought somebody in, a guy that was like, an executive at The Gap [Laughs] and it ruined the Ralph Lauren brand for two years. The quality of the garments went down, and that's probably a bad analogy, a bad story, but it's just kind of like, man, you take that leap of faith, but you also don't wanna regret it.
Ashley: I think it's all a risk.
Tio: Yeah. It's a risk. There would be a point in time where that risk is definitely worth the reward. It's gonna come at a point where either there's some imbalance in my life where it's like, I really need to focus my energy on my family or really focus energy on the things that are in front of me right now and allow someone to help me, help us focus on where we can take Three Keys.
I think I'm very spiritual, and so I'll say this: I feel like God will reveal that moment in time. Like it'll be so apparent and it'll slap me in the face, hit me in the face where it's like, “Yeah, this is that moment that Ashley and I talked about back on our podcast.” I'm gonna remember this moment and it's gonna be the catalyst for making that decision because I'm like, this was meant to happen.
Ashley: One of the reasons I wanted to push on this idea—and I've never owned a business, so this is coming from my own limited experience—but when I was a barista, at my very first coffee job, there was a woman who used to come in and she really connected with two baristas, me and this guy named Pat. And then there was a point where she only wanted Pat and I to make coffee for her and, bless my manager at the time, she handled it really well. She was very nice to her and she said, “Hey, let me buy you a coffee today. I'm gonna make it for you. But we can't have special requests. I can't have a barista on bar, who's making drinks, step off so that one of these two people can make drinks for you.”
She was very understanding of that. And it was one of those moments where I really reflected on like, what is this business? Or what does this job mean for me? What does it mean for me to encompass this, but to also be on a team of people?
Again, maybe this is not a perfect analogy, but I think a lot about those moments when something grows or something changes or something becomes something else. When does something become the sum of everybody's collective experience, if that makes sense.
Tio: Yeah, I think it does make sense because Three Keys and how it will evolve will be dependent on our ability to become a team. I think about it. I think about that a lot in the sense of like, “Man, there's roasters out here and they have a team and if only we had a team or with the team, there's more creative ideas that'll come to the table.” Things can go from idea to actual product in a much faster timeline.
Ashley: Can I ask you a music question? I don't mean to cut you off.
Tio: Yeah, yeah.
Ashley: Something I've been thinking about a lot—I don't know if you can answer this—but I think a lot about how [session musicians] can jump into something and create something without necessarily being invested. And I wonder, is that an experience you've ever had where you just get to play music with other people, even if you don't know them, to make something else or just riff? I imagine that has to happen in jazz a lot.
Tio: It does happen in jazz a lot. I think you have to have a certain confidence in yourself and in your abilities to do that effectively.
Ashley: I see an analogy there in coffee.
Tio: Yeah. [Laughs] Yeah. Dang, that's the curve ball. You just threw me a curve ball.
Ashley: I'm good at this. This is what I do: I make you think.
Tio: I will say that—so let me put it like this. It's not just Kenzel and I, and so I think that you see a lot of us and maybe there is a poor job on my part to also express and represent the people that help us or that support us, or the people that are on staff.
Ashley: I don't see it that way. I'm just wondering, and I feel like you and I have gotten to this really interesting territory of what identity means and what it means for your brand to represent you. By no means do I think that you have poorly represented anything. It's just really interesting when a brand is so much of a person and that person has to struggle with how much of this is me and how much of this do I allow it to be.
Exploring the idea that a brand is you, but like, it also is not you—you can remove yourself from it a little bit if you want to, but it could also be bigger than you. And that could be really exciting.
Tio: I think, to that point, Matchbook is a perfect example of going off, riffing, joining another group for a special moment in time to create something that's true. And just like various collaborations I've done, like with Three Keys or that Three Keys has done, things that we've thought about or just things I've done outside of Three Keys— like the Glitter Cat release.
So there's definitely the Three Keys thing. And then there's my standalone things that I get to do. But I do think, just off what we're talking about, this is definitely more conversation, less interview because you're actually putting things in perspective for me in terms of like…
You know, you think about the direction you want, that I want the business to go. Now this adds something to think about, right. To reflect on, to chew on before I go to bed or before, when I have my glass of wine tonight or something—to really visualize that.
I'm a very visual person, I like to visualize something. How do I visualize this in unfolding and try to think about how scenarios could play out, what potential outcomes—almost like a little mini computer running.
Ashley: I mean, that makes sense.
Tio: But you've added an extra data point to this conversation.
Ashley: I’m gonna bill you for this conversation later. No, I'm kidding.
Tio: I appreciate the question. Because it allows me to kind of—it's obviously something that I haven't really thought about, and hasn't really been asked to the level, which makes me like, kind of scratch or go beneath the surface, you know?
Ashley: Well, I just find it so interesting. I'm so fascinated by the reasons people start businesses and maybe that's why I have so many questions about it and I feel like it's so—especially in coffee, and I think your story harkens to it—but you are much more intentional about it than I think most people are, but starting a coffee roasting company is pretty low-risk.
You can buy a home roaster. I mean, there's money obviously, and there's cost involved, but compared to opening a coffee shop, you can do it at home. You can start a small mail-order business at home.
I think a lot of people go on this idea of—because people interact with coffee every day, and I've worked in coffee shops for 10 years, I can't count how many people have come in and been like, “I wanna start my own coffee business.” And I ask them even a single iota of like, “Why do you wanna start this?” And they have no answers. They're just like, “Oh, it just looks easy.” And you're like, that's fucking the dumbest reason.
Tio: Good shops evoke positive energy, good feelings. And people are like, “I want this for myself,” you know what I'm saying?
Ashley: I totally see it.
Tio: But this is, behind the scenes, it's hard to maintain that level of a solid operation. That takes a lot of planning, a lot of commitment from the staff. A lot of commitment from the managers, the owners—there's a lot that goes into it.
I heard someone phrase it like this: If you have a coffee shop and there are people that come in, those are your guests, they're not customers. They're your guest. And to create that sort of experience is not easy. Otherwise it'd be like McDonald's and you just go and grab a coffee, you're a customer. That's literally the customer experience, and you get your coffee, it's transactional and you're out the door.
But to be in a position where, to go back to your story where there's a guest and she literally only wants her coffee from you and one other person, there's a problem with it, but it's also a testament to the level of commitment in your craft and what you brought to work every day. Like you brought your A game, you know? It's hard to create that. I think that's where people kind of miss that material fact.
Ashley: Right. I think people forget why people come into coffee shops, and I think that you're right. We veered a little too far the other way with that, with that one customer, so we had to recalibrate and bring it back to the middle which was not a bad problem to have, as I reflect on it now I'm like, “Oh, what an interesting problem to have/ We had like, too dedicated of a customer.”
But I don't think other people really think, “Why would somebody come here? Why would somebody buy this coffee?” What I love about talking to you is that this is a question you think about a lot.
Tio: Yeah. Why would people come to Three Keys? There's so many options. And how do I keep people returning to Three Keys?
One thing I thought about as I asked myself that question, there's so many options—why would somebody want to buy my coffee—but I thought my answer to that was that it was more than just the coffee, it was about a full experience, the full sensory experience, including the playlist—like I gotta curate a playlist to support this coffee. If it's a Brazilian dark roast, I'm going to curate a Brazilian bossa nova playlist. The packaging has to be dope because I want to invoke a sense of emotion when you see the vibrant colors so it's a full, multi-sensory experience.
The more playlists I can offer to pair with the roast, different roast profiles, the more I can have those returning customers, because the customers also want some variability or some—they just don't want the same coffee every time. So let me offer, let me make sure I'm very intentional about the scope of my coffee program. I absolutely have to have as much coffee from every continent possible, because I just don't want to have only Central America, South America, or only East African coffees. If it's within my abilities to do so, I want to show the global variety that is coffee and the variety of music that can be paired with it.
So yeah, that was a little bit of that intentionality again kind of manifesting itself.
Ashley: Tio, thank you for taking time to chat with me. I appreciate it.
Tio: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
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I sometimes use the royal “we” with Boss Barista—I know I do this. It weirds me out sometimes, but other times, I’m uncertain how to talk about a big idea that’s beyond me. Anywho, this is me acknowledging the hypocritical nature of this comment.