Hurricane-force winds sliced off the apartment building’s façade, leaving wooden beams and bricks strewn over the parking lot like Jenga blocks. The lives of each unit’s residents — keepsakes in hutches, family portraits on shelves, report cards on fridge doors — were now exposed through the wall’s crude, jagged openings, like a dollhouse made from trauma.
A few days had come and gone since a derecho, the meteorological term for an in-land hurricane, turned this complex — and the entire city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa — upside down. The building’s mostly poor families, many of them refugees, raised tents on the asphalt and cobbled together kitchens with hoses and small camping stoves as they awaited help from overburdened city officials.
Willie Ray Fairley heard of the residents’ plight and loaded up his smoker with racks and racks of ribs. He’d been providing the small comfort of a hot plate to neighbors since the storm hit, and would continue to do so long after skies cleared.
Pulling into the apartment complex, he saw a little girl open her family’s fridge, her shoulders hunched at the emptiness inside. Power has been out for days, Fairley thought. She had to know nothing would be there, just like nothing was there the last time she checked.
The child’s hunger was as painful as her hope was deep. He lit his charcoal and set aside some of the first hot ribs. “I made these special, just for you,” he said, handing her a plate and watching her back straighten and her smile widen.
A newly minted restaurateur — just a year earlier he’d opened Willie Ray’s Q Shack in a teeny 250-foot drive-thru kitchen on a car wash’s property — Fairley had already picked up his weekly meat order when the August 2020 derecho upended trees and pulled down lamp posts. His pork and brisket and chicken wouldn’t keep through the sure-to-be lengthy power outages, so he hopped on a bike and told his subdivision food was coming.
As the sun went down, community members held their phones aloft so Fairley could keep cooking, flashlights flickering in the darkness like a concert’s ballad interlude. The grill was the stage and Fairley its rock star.
Fairley doesn’t remember making a conscious choice to wake up the next morning and drag his grill to another neighborhood to give out more free meals. Or do so the next morning. Or the next week.
Fairley comes from a long line of grill masters, the tricks of cooking looooowwww and slooooowww passed down from generation to generation like prized family heirlooms. And from a similarly longstanding heritage of philanthropists — not the kind that has family names splashed on museum wings, but the sort that drops off roasts on porches or bakes extra for the local nursing home. The only recognition needed was a full belly in place of growls.
Money is temporary, his father would say, but a meal is a memory. A full plate is one lined with a bit of the chef’s soul, and a good dish is meant to nourish spirit and stomach in equal measure.
Growing up near the Mississippi coast, an area often pummeled by hurricanes, Fairley understood natural disasters’ insidious ability to wipe out foundations — literally and figuratively. So he took this uncertainty moment by moment, the impulse to help as embedded in his DNA as his brown eyes and dark hair. He did the next right thing and the next right thing and the next right thing.
Gradually, as each moment of kindness built upon the one before, Fairley created a movement of giving — one that has rippled out across the country, touched countless lives and shows no signs of slowing down.
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Fairley’s alarm breaks the morning silence at 4 a.m. most days. The smoke of his grills has to be twisting and twirling as the sun rises to make sure the char is just right for an 11 a.m. opening.
Being an early bird is a learned trait; dawn had barely broken most weekends by the time his dad, Willi
e Ray Fairley Sr., had the grills going for his famous weekend-long barbeques. To the Fairley family, loaded plates, loud music and laughing were as necessary as oxygen when Saturday morning hit.
“We had all kinds of grills, and when we didn’t have a grill, we’d take anything — take a drum — and make a grill out of it,” says Willie Ray Sr.
And the guest list was always the same: anyone who needed a smile and a pulled pork sandwich.
Willie Ray Sr. learned from his mother that food was never to be hoarded. Everyone in the small community knew the Fairleys always had extra — no questions asked.
“My family always helped people that don’t really have the most, especially this time of year,” says Fairley’s nephew, Javon Dickey. “When we were younger, we’d just say to friends or whoever: ‘Come to my grandma’s house. She’ll always have good food.’”
As a child, Fairley was in charge of his family’s garden, which, featuring nearly an acre of perfectly rowed fruits and veggies, was “a lot of work with just a rake and a hoe,” he says. One summer, he asked his dad if he could set up a stand on the road, make a little money off all his hard work.
We don’t sell what we could more easily give, Willie Ray Sr. said.
“Life is more than just trying to make a dollar,” Willie Ray Sr. says. “I may need the dollar, sure, but I also need to help somebody else as I travel this journey.”
Manning the grill was mostly for grown folks, but Fairley, mature and entrepreneurial, was always in the periphery, always watching, Willie Ray Sr. says. And when the adults got caught up in a conversation or lost in a favorite song, Fairley would sneak over and turn the meat.
When Fairley moved to Iowa in 2001, hoping for a career different from the local shipyard and following a brother playing basketball at William Penn, grilling helped heal homesickness. Toting a tiny Weber, he and his friends would set up in parking lots or parks and get a party going. Loaded plates. Loud music. Laughing.
“Barbecue brings people together and those that care for you, they’re gonna be there,” he says. “I think that’s what it was, just trying to bring those feelings back from when I was a kid.”
During the week, Fairley got a steady job installing smart meters for Alliant Energy and invested every penny that wasn’t going to bills into his restaurant dream. He bought a smoker. Then another one.
In early 2019, now a father to three, Fairley tried to take his middle daughter to his favorite drive-thru BBQ place only to find it boarded up. By then, he’d saved enough money to float his ambition for about a year. His mind started turning: Could this be the place?
Five people were already looking at the space, the real estate agent told him, so on Fairley’s appointed tour day, he woke up early and smoked some wings. Take this home to your family, he said.
The Shack was his, and the opening was set for July 2019.
“Regardless of what happened within that first year, I was ready,” he says. “I was prepared to get this off the ground.”
Just about a year later, the winds over Cedar Rapids shifted.
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The sky was clear, pure blue, like light shining through sapphires, when the greeter at Sam’s Club told Fairley to hurry through his normal Monday routine. A storm just went through Des Moines, winds of 90 miles an hour, he said.
By the time Fairley checked out, the sky had turned black and rain was blinding. He drove on curbs and over downed trees, dodging lamp posts, as he tried to get to safety. By some miracle, the Shack was still intact. And his best grill, wedged between a truck and a fence, was unscathed, too.
But the same was not true for many. The storm came through so fast and so furious, official relief systems were wildly unprepared. Citizens filled in where needs arose.
In Fairley’s case that was with hot plates of barbeque. He dragged his grill to as many neighborhoods as possible, even propping it up on wood blocks after its worn tires gave out. He fed Cedar Rapidians, National Guard soldiers, Red Cross volunteers, linemen in town to help restore power, anyone whose belly needed filling.
“I felt like I was doing my part because you could have a million dollars, but once the banks close, the stores close, you can’t get access to anything. You’re no different than me,” he says.
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A week after the storm, Fairley opened the Shack again. He cooked more food than he ever had — and sold it all in 45 minutes.
“I was like, I know a lot of people’s power is out and I know there’s a lot of people in need. I’d rather not sell food; I’d rather just continuously give it,” he says.
“So I just kept cooking.”
And he cooked for six weeks, giving away most of what he made.
Unbeknownst to Fairley, his kindness was spreading across social media. Residents would spot him in a parking lot and post a message of gratitude. Others asked how to donate to the kind man giving away meals. A billboard message encouraged citizens to “Be a Willie.” First responders pointed people looking for food his way: Have you heard of Willie?
“One of the most interesting aspects of Willie is he’s definitely not someone I would say the majority of Cedar Rapidians knew before the derecho,” says Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell. “He’s ju
st a guy living his life, who has a passion for food and cooking.”
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“He’s what I would call one of the ‘unusual suspects’ in a really great way.”
As cleanup continued, Cedar Rapids slowly returned to normal and Fairley went back to usual business. Customers drove out of their way to the Shack because they remembered his kindness.
You fed us when we didn’t know how we were going to eat, one couple told him. We’ll never truly be able to pay you back, but we can buy some ribs.
As disasters struck in other parts of the country — tornadoes, hurricanes, floods — the images brought Fairley right back to that August day. When a freak winter storm hit Texas in February 2021, leaving officials there wildly unprepared and overburdened, Fairley couldn’t help but think about the derecho, and all the people who had been hungry then.
He’d already proven that he could give away food locally and still keep his business afloat. Why not nationally?
He opened Facebook and typed out a message: “Me and the team is planning on going to Texas.”
“On the road by noon tomorrow. Short notice but it can be done.”
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Once again, Fairley’s kindness spread quickly across social media.
Native Iowans who had moved to Texas offered not just their time volunteering with the 10 people Fairley was bringing from Cedar Rapids, but a bed in their homes or the use of their cars, whatever he needed to feed as many people as possible.
“You have strangers coming up and hugging you and crying on your shoulder, saying, ‘You don’t know how much this means,’” says Trevor Nicholson, a longtime volunteer.
“They can’t believe it: Who’s this group of people from Iowa just come down here to feed us for nothing,” Nicholson adds. “It’s like because we can, because this is Willie’s passion and he’s got a heart of gold.”
Since Texas, Fairley’s crew has traveled to Louisiana, Kentucky twice and most recently to Florida, where Hurricane Ian killed nearly 150 people. On most trips, which are funded largely through donations, their small crew works 12- and 14-hour days, handing out close to 1,400 meals a day.
“I live in the great city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and when people hear about us traveling somewhere, everybody donates a little bit and that makes it easy to do,” Fairley says. “And if donations don’t cover it, I just go into my own pocket and make up the difference.”
Fairley thinks about legacy a lot, both the one he’s building and the one he’s built upon. His parents taught him that the more you give, the more you receive, and he hopes his actions are showing his three children that is true. His youngest, who just turned 6, has taken the most interest in barbeque, telling his friends that he’s going to work at the Q Shack when he grows up, which is “like music to my ears,” Fairley says.
Most days, Willie still hands out at least one free meal. Carry this blessing forward, he’ll say.
“When you are passionate about something, and if you follow the mission, it always pays off at some point,” he says.
Recently, Fairley has hired some help so he can work on preparing the sit-down space he hopes to open soon or on refurbishing two food trucks he wants to run as mobile event caterers.
But the help also means he can jump back onto the grill — back into Willie’s world.
As he’s flipping and turning, he thinks about all that time spent in his parents’ garden. Without sun and water, crops fail. It seems to him that the equation for a good neighborhood, a good society, is just as simple — without kindness and generosity, both are doomed to fail, too.
Fairley still has people ask him what the heck he’s doing, how he’s supposed to meet his big-time restaurant goals if he just gives stuff away.
Money is temporary, he says, but a meal is a memory.
And at the Q shack, each plate is lined with a bit of h
is soul — nourishment for both the spirit and the stomach.
Courtney Crowder is the Iowa Columnist for the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network. Courtney traverses Iowa’s 99 counties telling Iowans’ stories. Reach her at [email protected] or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
How to help
For more information on Willie Ray’s Q Shack, visit Facebook.com/willieraysqshack. To donate to future disaster relief trips, find Fairley on Venmo @WillieRayQShack.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Willie Ray Fairley turned his mission to donate food into a movement