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Near-death experience inspires biz owner

Organic food company rebuilds in Burnaby after fire destroys Vancouver site

It all started with a will to survive and now it's about moving on from a devastating fire.

OrganicLives is setting up a café in Galloways Specialty Foods in South Burnaby after a fire vanquished its operations in Vancouver. The new café is set to open in the next two months.

"We're essentially opening ourselves up in Burnaby," said Preet Marwaha, OrganicLives CEO and founder. "We had operations out of Vancouver,

which burnt down, and we've been looking for a new home to get ourselves re-set up to get started."

But OrganicLives almost didn't happen if he hadn't survived a tumultuous time in his life, Marwaha said.

He was 19 when doctors were scrambling to find out what was slowly killing him. Marwaha was told it was everything from HIV to a brain issue, to wanting to amputate his foot and take out his intestines.

"It's not a fun place to be. And it was through that experience - coming out the other side, changing the ways that I was eating through some really good guides and mentorship - (that) ended up saving my life," he said. "I got to a point in my life where I had to quit everything I was doing. I had to quit school, quit hockey, quit working. I just couldn't do anything anymore because I felt like I was stoned all the time."

Marwaha said that's when his interest in food sparked.

"I wasn't sure I was going to wake up everyday," he said. "That's how bad it was."

After studying food and using different guides, Marwaha's health recovered and he moved on with his life. He finished school and began a career in IT.

Marwaha said he never stopped caring about food and how it relates to the body, and seven years ago he took it to the next level.

"It really started out as a vision at the time," he said. "I'd been spending so many years up until that point studying food and the science behind food, and the understanding of our body and how it all connects."

Marwaha left the corporate world and founded OrganicLives, which only started out as a website.

"It went from an information portal on the Internet ... to a store, to a warehouse, to a kitchen, to a restaurant, to a full-production facility," he said. "All this happened so quickly. Obviously because there's a need for it."

OrganicLives has hundreds of products it sells internally and at various grocery stores across the Lower Mainland - all of which are certified organic, according to Marwaha.

"For us, it's not about organic," he said. "Organic is one of the pillars of what we do. So there's organic, sustainable, fairly traded, it's good for the body and it's good for the planet. Those are the principles of OrganicLives - and we have to have all of them."

Marwaha said he and his crew try to offer as many local products as possible, but they also travel the world in search of farmers who meet their criteria when growing food.

"It's a mixture," he said. "What we can get local, what we can find local from that small family farm, sustainably grown, we do. There's some stuff we just cannot get here locally. There's a lot of amazing farmers around the world that are doing really great things and if we can find ways to work with them and support them, we will."

Another principle for OrganicLives is keeping its product prices low, according to Marwaha.

"Part of our values right from the get go was accessibility and affordability," he said. "(For) some people it's not an issue, for other people it's a struggle.

"I've always been criticized for our prices being too low, (but) this is not about building this ridiculously profitable empire - it's about making it sustainable."

Marwaha said OrganicLives will continue to sell food he wants to eat, and hopes to change how people think about food in the process.

"If it's coming out of a factory, I'm not so interested in it," he said. "That's really it, is how do we cut out things that aren't sustainable in the world and the way they're producing them and growing them and even just the treatment of animals - and those are the things that are important to me."