How the Passion of BBQ Saved a Town - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How the Passion of BBQ Saved a Town

How the Passion of BBQ Saved a Town

By Willie Ray Fairley



Because if there's anything cooler than free BBQ, we're totally unsure of what that would be right now.

By Willie Ray Fairley

Welcome back to Brighter Financial Fridays, sponsored by Discover. Discover created the Eat It Forward program to give local Black-owned restaurants chances to win $25,000. It’s distributed a total of $5 million to Black-owned restaurants all across the country. One recipient: Willie Man” Ray Fairley, owner of Willie Ray’s Q Shack in Iowa. Read his story below and watch more here.

I go by Willie, Willie Ray — either one — but they called me Man.

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 wasn’t a fan of that, so I had to go.

Willie Fairley WillieRaysQShack-2

Willie “Man” Ray Fairley

I learned how to grill from my dad. My dad, he’s a big barbecue guy, still does it to this day. He has the big smokers also, but I outgrew them a little bit. I got four big smokers now. Anything I put on that grill is going 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. 

I had a store back in 2006 that didn’t go as well as I planned. It had been a lot of ups and downs and trying to work with the health department to get the license to do what you need to do. I just had to stay focused, keep grinding, keep saving that little bit of money and sacrifice. I was a cable guy, I worked on bridges, concrete. I mean, I’m a brick mason by trade. Then I landed a great-paying job installing smart meters and saved every coin I had.

Probably about two months later, me and my daughter were riding around and I tell her: “I’m going to find a building today.” After searching and searching, I say, “Well, I can’t find anything. Let’s go to this old barbecue place.” I decided to try their stuff because they’re always closed and I can never catch them, and when I pull up, it says, “For Lease.”

Ribs from Willie Ray’s Q Shack

Then I say to myself: “You know what? I should go get my smoker, smoke up some wings and give it to the landlords. That way they’ll know what type of product is going in here.” So I did, and I got the place. There were five other people interested in it too. It took everything I saved up and sacrificed, but now we got a nice little place going on. 

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. I had a drive-thru. Then a couple of well-known people in the community came by and made a post saying, “This is really good food over here,” and everything changed. 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. When you remain humble, keep those faces smiling, do what’s right and don’t think about the pockets. They’ll get where they’re supposed to be. If you got the right product, just stay focused and deliver the mission, but you got to keep that food good.

Well, we had a storm come through on Aug. 10. A really bad storm, actually, like a hurricane. It came through with 100-mile-an-hour winds. So I started giving out food and taking care of the neighbors and community that needed food. I got in my truck and I was hitting neighborhoods, passing out food. I passed out a lot of food. I went around the neighborhood, letting everybody know, “Hey, I’m about to fire the grill up.” And when it got close to that time, my whole driveway was full of people.

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. Then a guy reached out to me and he was like, “I want to get some pictures of you while you’re doing what you’re doing.” I’m like, “That’s kind of weird, but all right, come on.” He was in the National Guard and met me there. Those pictures got released, and then it just kind of went haywire after that. 

Willie Ray Giving

“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.”

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?” and “What is this?” No one really knew what it was, but everybody was nominating me. People were coming in like, “Hey, I nominated you for the Eat It Forward.” When I actually got that call, I was like, “This is crazy. This is real, I guess.” I thought people were being nice because of what I was doing for the community.

As far as the $25,000 [award], I haven’t even touched it yet, but it’s in a safe place. There’s this new place right outside of my building I’m thinking of paying up for a year. That way, I know that’s secure and out of the way. 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. That’s what makes me smile: being able to help someone, even if it’s just a simple conversation.

In Iowa, there’s a truck stop called the World’s Largest Truckstop. I want one that’s named the World’s Largest Barbecue place — that’s where I want to be in five years. 

— as told to Joshua Eferighe

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories