A whopping 110,000 U.S. restaurants shut their doors for good last year, owing to the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn. For Black-owned small businesses in America, the news was even worse: 440,000 of them closed down between February and mid-April alone. Discover understands the gravity of the issue and responded with Eat It Forward, which encouraged community members to nominate their favorite Black-owned restaurants for the chance to win $25,000 awards. In all, Discover has given $5 million to Black-owned restaurants across the country.
Today on The Carlos Watson Show, we’re celebrating a Brighter Financial Friday sponsored by Discover and highlighting the work of Eat It Forward winner Willie “Man” Ray Fairley, owner of Willie Ray’s Q Shack in Iowa. This is Willie’s story.
“I grew up about three hours south of Jackson in Benndale, Mississippi, but left for Iowa when I finished school because that’s where my brother went to college. Where I’m from in Mississippi is rough, and the only option is working at the shipyard if you want to make some money. I learned how to grill from my dad. My dad, he’s a big barbecue guy, still does it to this day. Anything I put on that grill is going to make you lick your fingers. We babysit it, so we don’t have to set a timer on the phone to turn this up, turn that down — it’s all babysitting. The eyes don’t go off of it.
“When the pandemic happened, I was almost going to close because I didn’t want to be in the mix of it. Then they brought out the guidelines saying if you had a drive-thru, you can stay open. People were flooding in because the majority of places were closed and didn’t have a drive-thru. And it didn’t stop — I was at the right place at the right time.
“In the food business, one thing you have to do is take care of the community so the community will give you that support back. Well, we had a storm come through on Aug. 10 with 100-mile-an-hour winds. So I started giving out food and taking care of the neighbors and community that needed food. The community caught wind of what I was doing and people started wanting to meet me and take pictures. It got kind of crazy. So we gave food away for about a month and a half. We didn’t sell any food, just gave it away.
“When I first heard about Discover, I had no idea. I kept seeing it and reading it and I’m like, ‘What are you nominating me for?’ When I actually got that call, I was like, ‘This is crazy. This is real, I guess.’ As far as the $25,000 [award], I haven’t even touched it yet, but it’s in a safe place. I want to be able to put the people who struggled with jobs in positions where they want to be. We also still try to feed the homeless at least once a week. It makes me sleep better at night, and it makes me love my job because I’m in a position where I can do something to help somebody.”