CEDAR RAPIDS — After the derecho blew through Cedar Rapids with hurricane-force winds, Willie Ray Fairley was sure his business, Willie Ray’s Q Shack, wouldn’t still be standing. The restaurant is tiny, with just a drive-thru and no room for seating inside the 250-square foot kitchen perched in a parking lot of the Blue Lagoon Car Wash, 288 Blairs Ferry Road NE.
“I was like, man, this place isn’t going to survive,” he said. “But I guess whoever built it did a good job.”
The barbecue eatery did survive the storm, and Fairley wasted no time putting it to use, cooking the refrigerated food before it could go bad in the ensuing power outage. He took one on his restaurant grills home and started cooking for his neighbors. Driving around the debris-strewn streets, he said he just wanted to feel he was helping.
“I thought, at least if I can’t do anything else, I can make sure everybody in the neighborhood eats,” he said. “I just recently bought a mobile truck, and I thought, well, you know what, I can go around feeding people.”
His efforts started gaining attention on the Iowa Derecho Storm Resource page on Facebook as he started taking the truck around town to serve his barbecue, burgers and sandwiches for free in different neighborhoods. One day he set up to feed linemen repairing downed power lines; another day he fed National Guard members helping with storm response. But mostly he served people in parking lots of apartment buildings hit hard by the storm and anywhere else he thought people might need a hot meal.
“This is something I always wanted to do, to be in a position to help someone. I was raised like that,” he said. “I’ve been here 18 years. When the flood happened, I wasn’t in a position to do something, but I always said, if ever I’m in a position to help, I want to.”
As power came back on around town, he parked the truck and returned to serving at his regular spot, but he continues to give the food away, to the tune of hundreds of meals a day. He has gotten donations from people wanting to help but said he would be doing this regardless.
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He opened Willie Ray’s Q Shack in July 2019 and said the community has supported his restaurant through the first year in business, the pandemic and economic downturn. Even after this crisis has passed and he goes back to operating his restaurant as normal, he said he would continue doing what he could.
“Being hungry is a whole other ballgame,” he said. “If someone pulls up here needing food, that’s the mission, to make sure they get food. ... You don’t know someone’s circumstances.”
Friends and strangers alike have helped. His friend Nassor Cooper, owner of The Rewind bar, started a fundraiser to get him a bigger grill. Cooper and others have showed up to help him cook and get meals out the door. “It’s all a blur. Everything’s been happening so fast,” Fairley said.
Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, Fairley said he learned a lot from his parents. His father taught him how to barbecue and was constantly cooking for church dinners and fundraisers. The family had a big garden, which Fairley was tasked with tending as a kid. He would then watch his dad hand out the vegetables he had toiled over, never asking for a penny in return from the people who took home the produce.
“My dad would give it away. I used to be so angry as a kid. My dad used to be like, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to help someone else.’ It was only once I got older that I realized what was going on.”
He said he hopes he’s passing the same lessons on to his own children, ages 15, 12 and 3.
“It’s just a blessing to be in a position to do something,” he said. “If the shoe was on the other foot, if my house was destroyed, if I had no power, I hope someone would try to look out for me.”
He hopes it isn’t just food he’s serving, but a sense of community spirit and generosity.
“What I hope all this brings is the community being together all the time, not just during a disaster,” he said.
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