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Taking on Starbucks with a twist

It's a tough challenge, opening a coffee shop in a location that has seen four other owners go out of business in the last nine years, the last one in just two weeks.

It's a tough challenge, opening a coffee shop in a location that has seen four other owners go out of business in the last nine years, the last one in just two weeks.

It's an even bigger challenge when the biggest name in the coffee industry has a shop right across the street.

But for Marlon O'Reilly, owner of O'Reilly's Organic Coffee House in Burnaby, the secret is to offer something different from the expected in coffee culture.

After two weeks of intense renovating and cleaning, O'Reilly and his wife, Michelle Savidant, reopened the store on Feb. 10, with a new look and a new name.

Inside the large, rustic café, there is ample seating at tables, booths and overstuffed couches, where magazines and newspapers are piled on antique chests for people to peruse while they enjoy their morning brew.

Besides coffee and an assortment of gourmet teas, customers can also order paninis, soups, quiche, muffins and some sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan options.

Everything is local; from the coffee, which comes from a supplier in Langley, to the art on the walls and musicians who perform at the Thursday open mike nights.

Outside, there's a sign on the window that reads "Dogs eat free."

Lucky pups get Milk-Bones while their owners get their mochaccinos.

"When I've got 10 stores, I might bring in raw steak," O'Reilly says, though for now, the pet menu, unlike the human selection, is still quite limited.

Above all else, the one thing O'Reilly says is sure to put his shop on the map is the batch of homemade cinnamon buns Savidant makes from scratch every morning.

"You have to go out of the box," says O'Reilly. "If I served the same baked stuff (as the big name coffee shops), I'd be dead in the water."

Originally from Coquitlam, O'Reilly has worn many hats before opening his Burnaby business, and the entrepreneurial spirit is a family trait.

His grandmother was a successful business owner in the 1950s, before women did that sort of thing, and his brother managed a busy restaurant before becoming a top realtor on the Sunshine Coast.

O'Reilly himself started O'Reilly Landscaping in 1996 and built up the business while working on his music career.

So with all that going well, why coffee?

"I'm a bit of a coffee connoisseur," he says. "I've wanted a coffee shop for over 10 years. It's the vibe of all the customers being there. You know, everybody hanging out. - Here's the thing; I'm a passionate guy, about anything I do."

Being passionate about his customers is what O'Reilly anticipates will keep regulars coming back, knowing they'll hear their name when they walk in the door.

Of course, getting people into the store in the first place is still the biggest challenge. There is no parking available directly outside, and most people don't realize there's free parking underneath the building at Burnaby Square.

And it doesn't help that there's a steady of parade of loyal customers at the Seattle-based coffee shop just steps away.

"It's like a revolving door over there," says O'Reilly. For customers like writer Graeme Ward, though, it's nice to have an alternative, like O'Reilly's, where it's less noisy and less crowded.

"This is my office," says the BCIT marketing student. "When I started working on my novel again this was just the best place to come. It is a little bit out of the way, but there's no distractions here. They let me sit in the booth for eight hours with my headphones plugged in. - Granted, I do buy a lot of coffee and breakfast wraps," he says with a laugh.

Next to Ward's table a couple of senior women sit chatting over cups of tea, and at a booth next to them a handful of businessmen in suits conduct a serious meeting.

None of these people look like they're in a hurry to leave.

"That's the type of people we want to attract," O'Reilly says. "People who want to come here to hang out."

O'Reilly's Organic Coffee House is at 7885 Sixth St. in Burnaby, at the corner of 10th Avenue. Hours are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

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