116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — For the man named by Fortune magazine as one of 50 Greatest World Leaders in 2021, being able to give is a gift.
“Giving is a special thing,” said Willie Ray Fairley, owner of Willie Ray’s Q Shack on Blairs Ferry Road NE. “In general, no one likes to give, but everyone wants to receive.”
And though charity is not treated as an investment by the small-business owner, he knows it’s something that pays dividends in one way or another.
“I always knew that if you give something, nine out of 10 times you’re going to receive something at some point in time,” he said. “It takes a special person to want to give.”
Though his 250-square-foot drive-through has been open less than two years, Fairley has had an outsized impact on communities by giving away thousands of meals to those in need — near and far — during natural disasters.
In Cedar Rapids, the barbecue enthusiast made a name for himself after giving away thousands of meals for well over a month to linemen repairing downed power lines, National Guard members and residents hit hard after the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho, putting to use his newly acquired food truck.
When an unprecedented ice storm hit Texas in February, his spirit of giving was just as mobile. Over about a week, he gave away 1,600 meals in Dallas and Houston.
“A lot of people were coming up saying, ’Hey, you selling plates?’” he said. “Nah, it’s free,” Fairley replied to Texans in disbelief that a man from Iowa would come down to help.
“When things happen, we want to pack up and go help,” he said.
After spending his own money to feed derecho victims, he reached even further into his pockets to go down South. In Texas, he spent a substantial portion of a $25,000 grant he received last year from Discover Card’s “Eat It Forward” program to feed strangers.
“Fairley’s generosity may have cut into his profits, but it has endeared him to a community where he’s now a celebrated household name,” Fortune said in naming him to the list, calling him “the rare hero who transcended” pandemic, disaster and bitter political division over the last year.
But his generosity hasn’t always been limited to disaster relief.
“If I see someone short of change, I make the difference up for them. If I see kids trying to buy something, I’ll buy it for them,” he said. “I’ve been doing it forever.”
For the son of two Methodist preachers in Benndale, Miss., the love of people has always made him put in a little extra care for others.
“As I got older, I realized I always wanted to give,” he said. “I always talked about doing stuff for free, and people said you can’t make money doing stuff for free. Well, we’ll find out.”
With gradual business success that has ramped up with time, Fairley has shown that generosity is not mutually exclusive to an astute business sense. His Q Shack — where the Q stands for quality — took time to build after opening in July 2019. After he sunk his savings into it, the pandemic turned up the heat on his grills when hungry diners had to turn to drive-through for months.
The idea came after the former Alliant Energy employee went to try food at a former barbecue joint located there, only to see a “for lease” sign. He was hesitant about the idea of putting all of his eggs into one basket, he said, because “you can’t duplicate good cooking.” But with persistence, he knew the time was right to take a chance.
But judging by the near-constant line of cars lined up around the shack, most of them mirroring the beaming smile and convivial humor offered by the owner, loyal customers seem to agree that Fairley is more than capable of replicating good ribs, chicken and soul food.
Like his attitude for the community he lives in, good barbecue requires passion and love, he said.
“You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to put the hours in,” said Fairley, 38. “It’s not easy.”
Willie Ray’s Q Shack is the culmination of a lifelong goal to own something with his name on it. But even with newfound recognition, his success has not come at the expense forgetting his roots.
“I’m one of the people, so there’s no need for me to be any way different,” Fairley said. “This is just the beginning. If people need help, we’re ready to go.”
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