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Willie Ray's Q Shack in Cedar Rapids serves barbecue that reminds owner of home

Barbecue sauce is added to ribs for a customer at Willie Ray's Q Shack in northeast Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2
Barbecue sauce is added to ribs for a customer at Willie Ray's Q Shack in northeast Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Willie Fairley is far from most of his family and his childhood home in Mississippi, but when he’s cooking, it helps counter his homesickness.

“It’s a lot of reminiscing. Whenever I cook, I replay days and days of being with them. It’s therapy, it’s a way of feeling close to them,” he said.

He and his children may be the only members of his family living in Iowa, but 19 family members came to visit from Mississippi and celebrate with him when he opened his restaurant, Willie Ray’s Q Shack, on July 8.

The barbecue eatery is tucked into a small building in the parking lot of Blue Lagoon Car Wash on Blairs Ferry Road NE. The 250-square-foot space has no interior seating but serves barbecue through drive-up and walk-up windows. Fairley plans to remain open through the winter. In warmer weather, he can set up picnic tables outside, and next summer he hopes to host live music in the parking lot.

The space previously housed Ez Fast BBQ and other businesses. Fairley said he rented it after trying to take his daughter to eat at EZ Fast only to see the space was available for lease.

He planned for the business for three years before opening the doors, leaving a job installing smart meters for Alliant Energy. He’s excited to be his own boss, he said, and to do something he loves all day.

“I’ve been doing it back home all my life,” he said. “It’s the one thing I know. I know I love to do it, and I love to see people smile after they try it,” he said.

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He learned to barbecue from his father, also named Willie Fairley. The elder Fairley is known as the barbecue master of his community, his son said, always smoking meat for church dinners and fundraisers in Mississippi. The younger Willie Fairley grew up there before moving to Iowa 18 years ago.

“I watched him, growing up,” Fairley said. “When he’d leave, I’d go and flip a little bit, get my turn in. ... Every weekend was all blues music and barbecue at my house.”

Here, he is the one called on by friends and neighbors to share his culinary skills.

“I was always having barbecue at my house. People started asking me to bring the grill to their house, and I was bringing it to parks and cooking for everybody,” he said.

At the restaurant, Fairley serves a rotating menu that includes ribs, chicken, pulled pork and brisket. Chicken and ribs are on the menu every day, with other items featured as daily specials.

Side dishes are baked beans and potato salad. He plans to add chili in the future.

He also makes desserts like pound cake, which people can order by the slice or preorder as an entire cake. He is available for catering. In the future he hopes to add premade, frozen items like ribs that people can take home to cook themselves. He also plans to add breakfast items like brisket and eggs and smoked sausage.

The meat on his menu smokes for four to six hours and is made fresh daily. Fairley arrives about 6 a.m. to get it going in a smoker behind the building. The seasonings he uses on his meat are a secret, he said, but his enthusiasm for the food is not.

“I take basic ingredients and spirit and add a little bit of passion and love,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

What: Willie Ray’s Q Shack

Where: 288 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

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Details: (319) 206-3806, willieraysqshack.com

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