Along with the hand signals and colorful jackets, Ceres Cafe, the bar/restaurant housed in the Chicago Board of Trade Building, has long been a tradition in the Chicago trading world, and it has changed along with that world.
For many traders and others who work in and around the building, Ceres has been like a second home – or second office – where they could go to catch up with other traders and brag or commiserate about the day’s trading action, gossip, eat, and enjoy the generous pours that the place is famous for (along with their famed oversized fried fish sandwiches).
The name comes from the ancient Roman goddess of grain whose statue sits atop the building. The statue has no face, rumor goes, because at the time the building was by far the tallest in Chicago, so the CBOT leaders thought no one would be able to see a face anyway. But Ceres the restaurant has a face, and his name is Billy Assimos.
Assimos (emphasis on the second syllable) is the manager, not the owner, of the restaurant, but he is the one the customers see, and anyone who knows Ceres well knows Billy. He has been manager at the place for more than 20 years.
He has long been a part of the Chicago trading community, not only as the face of Ceres but also as a trader himself.
He grew up in the restaurant business – his grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Greece in 1912, and his father, George Assimos, ran Orlando’s on Wells and Van Buren a block away from the Board of Trade building. At that time, there were only four restaurants competing for the breakfast, lunch, and after work crowd: Orlando’s, the Broker’s Inn, King Arthur’s pub, and the Sign of the Trader, which eventually became Ceres. The current owners of Ceres, Louis Bournakis and his son Peter, started the Broker’s Inn in 1967 and later bought out the Sign of the Trader from Jack Bolling in 1986 and moved it into the CBOT building as Ceres Cafe.
Billy eventually went to work for Bournakis. But he started out as a kid peeling potatoes at Orlando’s back in the ’60s.
“It was like “Madmen” to an extreme – everything was three martini lunches,” Assimos said. “All the traders from the Board of Trade would come over in waves. You’d get the early traders coming in and having breakfast, and then at 9:30 the grains would open, and then you’d have the insurance people, because the 175 building was called the Insurance Exchange. Everyone ate and drank all the time – it was the ’60s. And there were no kitchens in the offices and no fast food places, so when secretaries wanted to take a break it was a quick coffee break” at one of those four restaurants. “At 1:15 the grains would close and all the grain traders would come down to drink and eat and go over what they’d won or lost. It was a nonstop business.”
Billy worked in Orlando’s on his vacations and learned how to do everything in the kitchen as well as being a busboy, dishwasher and cook, and later became his father’s partner in the business and then chef of the whole restaurant.
Thomas J. Cashman, a longtime CBOT member and soybean broker, remembers coming to Orlando’s for breakfast at 7 a.m. with fellow traders Lee Stern [of Lee B. Stern & Co.] and his son Dan Stern, Keith Bronstein, Dan Henning, Sam Olerich, Paul Gotskin, Jerry Macellow, Mike Helberg and Burt Gutterman. They sat at a round table and talked about the markets and sports.
“We knew Billy’s father George very well. He was a wonderful guy. He and Lee Stern were classmates, grew up together and played football together. That was part of why we were all there,” Cashman said.
John Lothian remembers meeting Billy when he was bussing tables for his dad and then reconnected with him when Ceres opened.
“The Sign of the Trader did the largest cash business of any bar in Chicago back in the day,” Lothian said. “People would start drinking at 10 am. Some traders had phones installed in the bar so that they could call down to the trading floor.” The restaurant’s windows were painted black back then and the only light was the glow from the TV monitors that showed stock quotes all day long – very different from the current Ceres Cafe, which was remodelled with ceiling to floor glass windows behind the bar.
Billy followed his father’s footsteps into trading as well.
“My dad was being bombarded by his friends, including his closest friend, Lee Stern, to buy a membership at the CBOT. He finally gave in and bought a membership in 1969 for $18,000. That was the best thing he ever did in his life, other than marrying my mother. He would come and check the restaurant in the morning, go trade at the opening of the grains – he was a soybean meal scalper – and then go back to the restaurant and do lunch, and do the closing at the board and then come back and close the restaurant. So we wouldn’t see my father until the weekends.”
Back then, there was no leasing of the seats, so if you didn’t have a membership, you were not getting any return on your investment, Assimos said. His father was street smart, which was crucial in trading in the pits, before computers took over. And he had played football at Purdue, so he had the height and personality for pit trading. Between the restaurant business and the trading business, he was able to put Billy and his two older brothers through college at his alma mater.
Billy bought a smaller membership – an IDEM (Index, Debt and Energy Market ) and a COM (Commodity Options Market) – in 1986 and started trading stock indexes and grain options. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he figured all of the traders on the floor weren’t smarter than he was, so he could do it if they could. He was “horrible” in grain options but loved stocks and did very well in the indexes. He figured out early on that he wanted to be a scalper, rather than a position trader or a spread trader.
“I was trading in the pit and I had one contract on in the Dow Jones Index,” Assimos said. “I had a bad trade on, and one of the guys in the pit pulled me over and said, ‘What the heck are you doing, Billy? You could have made a hundred trades and started all over again.’ So I said, that’s a good idea, and that’s how I became a scalper. I would trade 50 one-lots a day. 50 a side. You could make good money back then going for small amounts – you weren’t trying to make a killing, but by the end of the day you had a lot of money in your pockets. As long as the action was in the pits, you could have a bad trade and you could get your money back.”
Being in the pits was the most physically and mentally demanding thing you could be doing, Assimos said. You didn’t know where your next dime was coming from, and you could lose a lot of money just by opening your mouth. You could have a great day one day and the next day have an outtrade and lose it all plus more.
The scariest day in trading for Assimos was the crash of 1987. “A 30 point move in the Dow was a huge number back then,” he said.
He had made the largest amount of money he’d ever made early in the day, by trading both long and short. He stopped trading when the Dow was down about 200 points; it went down another 250 or so points after he stopped, and he thought, “Oh my God, What if somebody’s looking at me for an outtrade! I’m going to be broke!”
He was so nervous that, although he never drank during the week when he was trading, he drank five beers in a row after it was over to relax.
“During the day I had made so much money that I told myself, I’ve gotta get out of here [before I start to lose it],” Assimos said. “So I took a long walk down to a shoe store on Roosevelt and bought myself a pair of New Balance Gym shoes. You gotta understand, nobody made this kind of money. The one lots were going for $2500 a tick. So if you opened your mouth up you were risking $2500 for a one-lot. If you were doing a 10-lot, it was like $25,000 a tick. If you were wrong on your initial trade, you’d be out $5,000 minimum. Being a scalper during the crash, you had to cut down your trading. You couldn’t trade the way you normally did, you had to be very selective.”
At that time, there were no trading limits, so a smaller trader like Assimos could move the market 10 points to get out of a wrong trade.
“I did very well [that day], but it was the scariest time other than 9-11,” he said. “People were going broke.”
Mentoring was often a road to riches back then in a way it no longer is. If someone liked you they would take you under their wing. Assimos’ mentor, Monty Monaster, would come into the restaurant and look after Billy, at Billy’s father’s behest, because at the time he was floundering buying stocks and Monaster was very good at stock trading.
“I was buying all the wrong stocks at the time and he helped me out. And that’s how I built up my money so I could buy my membership,” Assimos said. “But sometimes they would just buy a membership for a guy and put him in business because they liked him so much. It’s very different now.”
For one thing, there are currently no seats or memberships to buy – shareholders now own a “trading right” rather than a seat. When the CME bought the CBOT in 2007, the deal gave CBOT shareholders 0.375 shares of CME Holdings stock for each share of CBOT Holdings stock, and CBOT shareholders received a 36% ownership stake in the combined exchange.
Billy’s family still owns a yellow badge and leases it out. He was among those who lucked out when the Merc went public first, beating out the CBOT and giving its members a lesson.
“All my buddies that were trading at the merc, they started out with the stock price at around $35, and it went up to $100 and they all sold their shares, but then it kept on going higher and higher and they had already sold their shares,” Assimos said.
The CBOT went public at an initial price of $54 a share, but soon hit a high of $134.50. This time the members didn’t sell right away.
“Thank God there was a three-month moratorium to sell your stock,” Assimos said. “But we also owned part of the CBOE exercise right, so we kept the stock and the trading rights together.”
As times have changed for traders they have changed for Ceres. Traders have left the building.
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which acquired the CBOT and was renamed CME Group, shut down nearly all of its futures trading pits in February of 2015. But floor traders and floor staff in Chicago had already been dwindling from a high of more than 10,000 in the 1990s to somewhere around 1,200. Ceres is still popular, but it isn’t doing the kind of business it used to do when the Board of Trade Building was filled.
Still, on Friday nights the restaurant puts out a rope by the door, and young people from outside, likely few or none of them traders, line up in droves, mostly from word of mouth or Yelp.
One thing that keeps them coming is that the restaurant has kept the large size of its pour through all these years. A gin and tonic, for example, consists of a large glass of gin with a splash of tonic.
“We give a very good pour for very reasonable prices,” Assimos said. “We try to give people good service and we don’t try to make a lot of money on one drink – we try to sell a lot of drinks and make a little bit of money. So our liquor cost is high compared to everyone else, but even on a Tuesday night we’re busy.”
Trading was often a roller coaster ride, and Assimos got burned a few times, but he eventually reached his goal of getting rid of all of his debt – paying his house and car payments off and putting money in the bank.
He is still hard at work at Ceres every day, morning til evening. He and his wife love to travel, and the hard work has paid off; over the past few years they have visited Egypt, Greece, Israel, Singapore, Australia, Istanbul, Dubai, Jordan, and Bali, and they are planning for their next trip to Galapagos. He keeps coming back to Chicago, though, and you can tell that, as both restaurateur and former trader, he has Chicago in his blood.