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Barbecue to the rescue: Willie Fairley plans to feed derecho victims ‘until everyone’s back on their feet’

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Willie Fairley, in front of Willie Ray’s Q Shack, 288 Blairs Ferry Rd NE, Cedar Rapids. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Willie Fairley’s phone has not stopped ringing.

Fairley told Little Village he’s gotten calls from “all over the world” letting him know they appreciate the work he’s doing and asking how they can support him.

Fairley, owner of Willie Ray’s Q Shack in Cedar Rapids, has been making hundreds of free meals for people impacted by the Aug. 10 derecho.

“No one has power, everybody’s cleaning, trying to do the best they could,” Fairley recalled after the storm. “I just got on my bike and started going around letting a few people know, ‘Hey, we got food if you need it.’”

Sandwich from Willie Ray’s Q Shack — courtesy of the restaurant

Word of mouth and social media posts highlighting Fairley’s generosity quickly spread. In the most desperate days after the derecho, he was giving out more than 400 meals every day. More than two weeks later, Fairley said he’s still distributing around 300 meals a day.

“It’s been a journey,” Fairley said.

Fairley, who was born and raised in Mississippi, has been in Cedar Rapids for 18 years. Wanting to be his own boss, he launched Willie Ray’s Q Shack in July 2019, utilizing the barbecue expertise he’d honed over the years.

“I’m not necessarily sure if I can consider myself a master, but I like to think I am,” Fairley said. His barbecue restaurant, located at 288 Blairs Ferry Rd NE, serves food through its drive-up and walk-up windows. Various smoked meats and sides are on the menu, along with daily specials.

In the backdrop of Cedar Rapids’ derecho disaster is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which Fairley said didn’t impact his business too much, beyond raising the costs of food supplies (prompting him to charge a little more for his brisket).

“We made it through, and it’s sad that it’s still here, and then you get a storm on top of it,” Fairley said. “It’s like a double whammy. That shouldn’t have been a lottery that we should have won.”

News of Fairley’s food relief efforts led to interviews by local media, as well as CNN. He was featured on the Instagram account GoodNews_Movemement, which was then shared by Khloe Kardashian on her Instagram Story.

View this post on Instagram

(Cedar Rapids, Iowa): Willie Fairley, the owner of Willie Ray’s Q Shack, has been giving away some 400 meals a day to his Cedar Rapids community after a powerful wind storm on Monday damaged over 800 buildings leaving many without power. Fairley says he’s, “just trying to do what he can to ease the burden that some may be facing (…) We’re just trying to do what we can as a company to make sure we did our part. Because if it was me home with nothing. I would want someone to at least be able to provide something for me.” Follow and GO TO @willieraysq if you are near Cedar Rapids and I will share your pick with Willie in my stories! What an awesome guy!!! 👏🏼 ❤️🐝 check out my friend @mariamenounos chat further about this man’s heroic efforts to help his community!! 🐝 ❤️

A post shared by Good News Movement (@goodnews_movement) on

Many in the community have also nominated Fairley for Discover’s Eat it Forward program, which is giving $5 million to Black-owned restaurants. A total of 200 restaurants will be selected to receive $25,000.

The extra attention isn’t making Fairley feel any different. “I’m still the same,” he said. “I’m just doing what I would do anyways.”

Fairley said he plans to give out the free meals for three to four more weeks “until everyone’s back on their feet.” If people are still in need after that, he said he’ll make sure they get food.

Meals are distributed at the Blairs Ferry Road location and pick-up typically begins at noon. There are daily updates posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Many have also been supporting Fairley’s efforts by donating to the Venmo account WillieRaysQShack.

“I love doing this,” Fairley added. “You see some people come in with tears in their eyes and you put a smile on their face. I’ve just never been in a position to be able to do that for someone, and it’s just such a great feeling on the inside.”

Willie Ray’s Q Shack’s mobile grill — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Update, Sept. 24: Thanks to an outpouring of social media votes over the past six weeks, Willie Ray’s Q Shack won a $25,000 award as part of the Discover Eat it Forward initiative. In a Facebook post, Fairley thanked the community, saying the prize will “help us to continue to grow and have the ability to serve more people!”

The amount of love and support over these last couple months has been surreal! Thank you to everyone that nominated…

Posted by Willie Ray's Q Shack on Thursday, September 24, 2020

LV Recommends: Willie Ray’s Q Shack

By Christopher B.
Willie Fairley and Christopher B. in front of Willie Ray’s Q Shack, 288 Blairs Ferry Rd NE, Cedar Rapids. — courtesy of Starlet Smith

Christopher is an 11-year-old Cedar Rapids resident who has been volunteering, fundraising and organizing clean-up efforts in the city following the Aug. 10 derecho. When he heard that Willie Ray’s Q Shack, his favorite barbecue restaurant, was feeding families for free, Christopher used his allowance to buy charcoal to donate to the restaurant.

I like going there because they have really good service. It’s the best barbecue ever and they always add extra sauce and bread.

I like the smell of the food because the grill just does something to it. Every time we go they give me an extra pop or drumstick. It’s worth buying. It’s five-stars rating, and I want to work there one day because they have good food and they always help people even when they aren’t as busy.

I want them to have charcoal so people can eat his food and be happy like it’s a holiday. You know, during a holiday people eat and laugh and are happy. Now people are sad and lost homes, cars, video games. If they eat Willie’s food today then they will be happy.

Christopher B. and Willie Fairley load charcoal into Fairley’s truck. — courtesy of Starlet Smith

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 286.


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