Hollings Cafe owners, known for food and compassion, reach milestone in giving to cancer center

November 27, 2023
a roomful of people toast Wendy and Jose at Hollings Cancer Center
Clinicians, researchers and staff members at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center toast Jose and Wendy Perey, center in pink shirts, with sparkling apple cider at an event to celebrate the Pereys' generous giving to Hollings. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Throwing a surprise party can be a difficult task. You hope not only that people will attend but also that they will keep the secret from the honored guest. You worry that someone might give away the game by accident.

Fortunately, for the recent surprise party thrown for Jose and Wendy Perey, owners of the Hollings Cafe at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, all worries entertained by the organizers were completely unfounded. As soon as the Pereys walked into a darkened conference room the afternoon of Oct. 20, the lights were thrown on, and a loud and excited “SURPRISE!” reverberated through the small space.

The room was decorated and packed with Hollings doctors, nurses and staff members, all gathered to celebrate the Pereys’ generous regular gifts to Hollings since they first opened the Hollings Cafe. Their latest monthly donation in October brought their total amount of generous giving to $100,000 to support cancer research.

“We’re just so busy working. We had no idea!” said Jose, completely shocked upon hearing the reason for the celebration.

a couple react in surprise at Hollings Cancer Center 
Jose and Wendy Perey were shocked when Hollings staff surprised them with a celebration. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Partners in both life and business, the Pereys have owned and operated many restaurants together over the years. Before the Hollings Cafe, which they opened in May 2012, they ran Charlie Steakery franchises, Wholly Cow ice cream shops, Majestic Grille and four Chinese restaurants. But the Hollings Cafe is different, they said.

“It’s a pleasure to serve. It really is. We look forward to coming to work. And I can’t say that about all our past working experiences,” Jose said. “So we feel it is truly a time to give back. We’ve never felt so…,” Jose drifted off, searching for the right work.

“It’s a very rewarding job,” Wendy offered, and Jose agreed.

The Pereys first met when Jose, a Charleston native and College of Charleston graduate, was working as a banker for South Carolina National, and Wendy was managing her mother’s Chinese restaurant in the same shopping center. The women at his bank pushed Jose to ask Wendy out, although he was hesitant. He claims Wendy was out of his league then and still is today. Despite his doubts, he took the leap, and the couple celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary this year.

It’s clear to anyone who knows the Pereys that they make a wonderful team. They finish each other’s sentences, lightly make fun of each other and make one another laugh easily. Their obvious joy and pure enjoyment of each other’s company make visiting the Hollings Cafe a pleasure.

In fact, Jose had to be pushed to admit that every day at work isn’t picture perfect. When asked what the worst part of his job is, he glanced sideways at his wife.

“Well … the worst for me is when I make a mistake, and Wendy is all over me for doing it,” he smiled, and Wendy quickly interrupted.

“No, no, no – I just give him ‘the look,’ that’s it!” she said.

Jose laughed. “But the upside is all the customers there at the time get to participate in throwing me under the bus with her!”

Jose and Wendy Perey 
Jose and Wendy Perey. Photo by Clif Rhodes

But mistakes at the cafe are rare, and that is largely because they each have distinct roles, and they do not overlap. He is the face of the cafe, greeting customers, taking orders and making easy conversation. Wendy is the head – and only – chef. She has immense talent and experience in a kitchen. She grew up watching her mother, who was a culinary teacher in Singapore, hone her skills and then share them with others. While her mother didn’t directly teach Wendy everything she knows, the environment definitely sparked her interest in cooking.

Jose knows his talents lie in other areas and stays out of the kitchen.

“Jose loves to talk,” Wendy said. “He can talk to anyone. That’s what he’s good at.”

More seriously, the couple shared that there, unfortunately, can be some very hard moments that come with working at a cancer center. They said it’s easy to tell when a patient or caregiver is having a rough day and needs extra compassion, a kind word or even a hug.

“You have to put on your compassionate hat and just do the best you can for them, knowing their life is just upside down right now,” Jose shared.

The Pereys know about having their lives turned upside down as well. While they have been donating to Hollings since the inception of the cafe, their donations became even more personal seven years ago, when Jose was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. After being treated at Hollings, his prognosis remains positive; he takes oral chemotherapy to manage his cancer and occasionally checks in with Brian Hess, M.D., who he said is like a brother. Jose said he counts himself incredibly lucky to be a Hollings patient and is happy to give back and help all others who must walk through the doors.

Throughout their many years in the restaurant business, through the good years and the not-so-good, the Pereys always found the funds to give back to their community. Over the years, they’ve given to the local police fund, The March of Dimes, the National Guard, the College of Charleston, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, various animal shelters and other charities.

They also support Hollings in another way – by participating in the annual fundraising bike ride, LOWVELO. What’s most amazing is that Wendy can’t even ride a bicycle, but she was so determined to participate, she decided she and Jose would ride a tandem bike. When asked if it was hard to ride that type of bike, Wendy laughed and said, “Not for me!”

a couple on a tandem bike mugs as they cross the finish line at LOWVELO to raise money for Hollings Cancer Center 
Jose and Wendy Perey cross the finish line on their tandem bike at LOWVELO23 on the Isle of Palms. Photo by Ben Egelson

The Pereys said they can’t imagine going back to any of their previous jobs; Hollings is their home, and the patients, caregivers and employees they see every day are like family.

“It’s a wonderful place to land for us,” Jose said.

After so many years in business together, they are still truly happy working together and have no plans to leave the cafe. They enjoy starting their day when many are still sleeping and closing the cafe to go home together at 3 p.m.

“Also, no weekends, no holidays,” Wendy said. “We are already halfway retired!”

a signed poster thanking Jose and Wendy for all they do at Hollings Cafe 
Staff members expressed their thanks to Jose and Wendy Perey. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Thankfully, retirement is not in the near future for the couple. The day before the Pereys walked into their surprise party, it was announced that they had officially won the bid to keep their lease and continue to run the Hollings Cafe. Therefore, partygoers celebrated not only the couple’s generosity and gifts to Hollings but also the fact that Hollings patients and staff will get to enjoy the Pereys’ friendly faces and delicious food for years to come. And Jose and Wendy are happy to serve.

“I don’t know of any day that we’ve been here that it hasn’t been a happy day. It’s so easy when someone comes in with a smile. It’s easy to make them smile in return. It’s easy to continue a great day. And every day is like that,” Jose said.