Craig Spencer and Jon Bon Jovi didn’t hit it off right away. In fact, it looked as if their first meeting would be the start of a lengthy battle of wills. “Both of us were strong-minded businessmen who weren’t keen on having a partner who had equal decision-making authority,” admits Spencer.
A Gladwyne resident and high-powered real estate developer, Spencer had met with the Arena Football League’s commissioner to discuss buying a franchise here. He quickly discovered that another party had already expressed an interest in the market. “The commissioner said I’d have to meet that other party or there would be no deal,” Spencer recalls. “That other party was Jon Bon Jovi.”
But when the two started talking, they realized they had things in common. “Once we discovered that we shared some very strong core beliefs, we just clicked after that,” says Spencer, whose Arden Group is behind the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia and the adjacent Residences at the Ritz-Carlton. “Believe it or not, in the six years we had the Philadelphia Soul together, we never had a disagreement about anything.”
That healthy chemistry has carried over to some significant philanthropic pursuits that transcend our region’s boundaries. In 2005, Spencer and Bon Jovi founded the Philadelphia Soul Charitable Foundation, which has since spawned the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, with its mission to “combat issues that force families and individuals into economic despair.”
The unlikely partners knew nothing about running a sports team in the beginning, but they soon built the Soul into a nationally respected AFL force. Five years later, in 2008, the Soul won the world championship—no matter that some of the competing teams it trounced along the way were backed by NFL owners.
Mission only partly accomplished. “From the beginning, Jon and Craig’s commitment was to have a winning franchise off the field as well,” says Chester County’s Mimi Box, who served as the team’s first COO/CFO before becoming a charter member of its charitable arm’s board of directors.
As such, everyone affiliated with the team—from the players and front-office personnel to the dancers and mascot—were expected to get out into the community and participate in charitable programs and events. Even before the Soul played its first game, the team had donated $200,000 to local charities.
After Bon Jovi left the team in 2006, the charitable organization was renamed the JBJ Soul Foundation and its focus narrowed to supporting efforts to provide safe and affordable temporary, transitional and permanent housing for teens, veterans and other special-needs populations in low-income communities. For their first project, JBJ Soul renovated 15 abandoned homes on a rundown block in North Philadelphia to provide affordable home-ownership opportunities to local families. “Jon said he wanted the foundation to shine a spotlight on the problem of homelessness,” says Spencer. “And, believe me, Jon shines a very bright spotlight.”
Born, raised and still living in central New Jersey, Bon Jovi has long been known for his charity work. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed him to his White House Council for Community Solutions, and Forbes magazine recently ranked him first among celebrities who parlay their high profiles and media exposure to generate support for charitable causes.
But Bon Jovi acknowledges that JBJ Soul is anything but a one-man show. “First and gratefully, we’re able to house the foundation rent-free on Market Street in Philadelphia,” says Bon Jovi, referring to the office space provided by Spencer’s company. “Craig’s attention to detail—as well as his expertise in construction—is what keeps me grounded and even more confident that we’re maximizing every dollar we spend.”
If you have to ask the price of something, you probably can’t afford it, the saying goes. Not so at Soul Kitchen, a contemporary-cool neighborhood bistro opened in Red Bank, N.J., last October by JBJ Soul. There are no prices on the menu, and no one leaves this place hungry. “This isn’t a soup kitchen or a pay-as-you-can place,” says Spencer. “We wanted to create a neighborhood go-to spot where everyone can afford and enjoy a wholesome, delicious meal and all of the other amenities that go along with an upscale dining experience.”
For guests who can pay in cash, the recommended donation for an appetizer-to-dessert dinner (think Garden State gumbo, pork chops with local fig and apple chutney, and homemade carrot cake with lemon cream cheese frosting) is $10 per person. Guests unable to pay can earn dining certificates by volunteering at the restaurant or with other partner nonprofit organizations serving the Red Bank community. “We believe this model empowers people who want to help themselves,” Spencer says.
By using local ingredients whenever possible, Soul Kitchen also supports area farms and other producers. Job training is another component: One of the chefs was hired after completing the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties’ culinary job skills training program.
Spencer credits Bon Jovi’s wife, Dorothea Bongiovi (she uses her husband’s original surname), as the driving force behind the Soul Kitchen. She was involved in researching existing community restaurant programs in cities like Denver and Salt Lake City. “Dorothea volunteered to be the project coordinator,” says Spencer. “She’s not only passionate, she’s absolutely tenacious about doing this thing right.”
Instead of rescuing abandoned homes one at a time, JBJ Soul prefers to rebuild entire neighborhoods by working with organizations and volunteers to remodel groups of homes and clear out empty lots strewn with trash or plagued by drugs. “One man told us that he can now keep his window blinds up for the first time in years,” says Box, who is now executive director of JBJ Soul.
The foundation has also partnered with the Covenant House Pennsylvania Rights of Passage program to develop a complex of 10 two-bedroom apartments in Philadelphia’s Kensington section to provide temporary housing for 20 homeless youths. The facility opened last April.
Soul Kitchen is the JBJ Soul’s first foray into addressing issues of food insecurity. According to Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, one in five children go hungry in this country. Its website estimates that 4,000 Philadelphians are homeless on any given day. “But affordable housing and food insecurity issues are not limited to large cities such as Philadelphia and Camden,” Box says.
Though Forbes named Chester County the 24th wealthiest community in America in 2010, more than six percent of its residents live below the poverty level, according to the county’s Department of Community Development. The U.S Census Bureau reports that, in 2009, more than five percent of the population in Montgomery County falls into that same category.
In addition to Spencer and Box, locals Stephen Perna of Bryn Mawr and Leo Carlin of Drexel Hill serve on JBJ Soul’s board of directors. The organization is currently working on other housing projects, and additional Soul Kitchen locations are also on the agenda.
“We want to grow—but the right way,” says Spencer, who’s still a majority co-owner of the Philadelphia Soul. “The foundation could be significantly larger because of Jon’s celebrity, but we need to make sure our growth is manageable.”
To learn more about the JBJ Soul Foundation, visit jonbonjovisoulfoundation.org.