By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

The jazz-themed sandwich shop Perry’s Joint has not reopened its dining room, so the weekly jam sessions are also silenced.

Still, the joint is always jumping.

With a steady stream of loyal guests lining up for takeout of the artisanal sandwiches and hot dogs, Perry’s Joint has made it through the pandemic. In fact, new opportunities arose for affable chef Perry Bennett.

If Bennett and his operation has a slogan, it’s “community first.” Since opening in 2004 for breakfast and lunch, the small shop has always been a natural community hub. For years prior to the pandemic, Bennett has been a neighborhood mentor — and employer — to students from nearby John Muir High School. Since 2010, he’s also been an active patron of deserving graduating seniors from the high school.

Annually, on the second Saturday of August, Bennett donates the proceeds from a day’s sales to a graduating Muir senior to assist with impending college expenses.

“The fundraiser is for John Muir students attending four-year universities, who have not only just done well academically but who have represented themselves as great people in the community, by being examples to their peers and all around good, wholesome people, who I believe can make a difference in our world,” Bennett explained.

The idea was launched more than 11 years ago, after a chance meeting at Smart & Final.

“In 2010, there was a young man named Destiny Ouamu,” Bennett said. “He always used to come in here. I saw him at Smart & Final one day and he had boxes of candy in his hands.”

Ouamu was accepted to UC Berkeley and intended to sell candy at school to raise tuition funds.

“At that moment, I knew I was going to do something. It really started because of Destiny saying he needed to raise some money to go to college.” Bennett said. “That’s why I decided to start the scholarship program.”

Usually, Bennett selects the candidates from the pool of students he gets to know at the shop, sometimes over the course of years.

“They’re usually supporters of Perry’s Joint. So, I’ve always felt this place wouldn’t be here without the support of the community and the kids. Let me give back to the kids somehow, because part of the reason I’m here is because of them,” Bennett said.

Last year, he chose three recipients and with the addition of a GoFundMe option on his website, he raised over $15,000 for the scholarships.

Perry’s Joint’s 11th college scholarship fundraiser is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14. The GoFundMe portal will return via the shop’s website.

Last year was challenging for the students, all of whom missed their prom and couldn’t attend college classes in-person. Bennett found it challenging to select deserving students without regular visits to the store.

“Because of COVID, things have changed a little, because the kids didn’t come in all last year,” Bennett said. “Normally it’s a real personal thing. They come in and I’ll talk to them. I can see how they relate to their friends. But I wasn’t able to do that this year. So, I reached out to Principal (Lawton) Gray and also the softball coach, who has always been a big supporter of mine.”

He asked them to recommend students.

“So, now I have four amazing students,” Bennett added.

After deliberations, Bennett chose John Muir High School graduates Joanna “Frazzle” Bendy, Tia Reed, Selena Rodriguez and Dylan Wilson.

“We wanted kids who could not only represent themselves and represent the school and the community but could also continue the legacy of doing something for the community,” Bennett said.

“Because that’s what this is about. We can all do something.”

On Aug. 14, Perry’s Joint’s menu will be largely limited to hot dogs and sandwiches.

There are seven hot dog options priced between $5 and $6. They include regional variations like The Chicago, with tomato, pickle, mustard and celery salt; The New York, with onion, sauerkraut and mustard; and The Detroit, with chili, onion and mustard.

The sandwiches are grouped in two jazz-themed lists The Straight Ahead sandwiches and Perry’s fusion sandwiches. The former list includes fresh takes on turkey, roast beef and pastrami, as well as chicken, tuna and egg salad. They’re all priced under $10 and are served on a choice of fresh bread.

However, it’s the fusion list where Perry really jams. These sandwiches go beyond traditional deli combinations. “The Guru” ($12) has been well-cited locally with critical plaudits. It’s a take on hot pastrami and turkey with tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles and pepperoncini, all dressed with mustard and mayonnaise.

Regulars in the know go for the chef’s special, a formerly off-menu secret, with hot turkey and chicken salad.

After the dust settles on the fundraiser, Bennett and his wife, Melanie, head off to the East Coast to drop their own two children at college. Their son, Perry Morrel Bennett is transferring from PCC to Morgan State University in Baltimore to study computer science. Daughter Hannah Virginia begins as a freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia to pursue a degree in architecture. Both are proud graduates of John Muir High School, as well as former employees at Perry’s Joint.

The latest news and a still-unfolding story at Perry’s Joint is the impending opening of an Altadena location. Having secured the corner storefront on Lake Avenue and Mariposa Street earlier in the year, Bennett is hoping to begin the buildout of the new space by the end of this month. The opening is projected for December.

The charming business strip already includes Amara Kitchen, which is part of a buildings owned by Altadena’s Galloway family.

He credits local developer and activist, the late Jaylene Moseley for his ongoing success on Lincoln Avenue.

“Jaylene Moseley was an incredible landlord and that’s why I made it,” he said. “I get the same energy from the Galloways. I love the direction of the community and I want to a part of that also.”

Bennett said the new outlet will have the same energy.

“Everything I do is a little bit like jazz,” Bennett said.

“Perry’s Joint is the foundation. I have the foundation, but I improvise as I go. Like a lot of jazz players, they can’t tell you what they’re about to play. Whatever comes out, comes out. The foundation is going to be Perry’s Joint, but the rest of it? I can’t tell you. I honestly don’t know. I kind of live my life that way.”